The Museum of Fine Arts has settled a long-running dispute with the estate of a Jewish collector over seven porcelain figurines that were sold amid Nazi persecution in Berlin in 1937. Under the terms of the agreement, the MFA will pay the estate of Emma Budge an undisclosed sum to retain the rare 18th-century German objects, for which Budge’s heirs were likely never paid after the sale.
The MFA put the colorful figurines on view Wednesday in the museum’s Angelica Lloyd Russell Gallery.
“It’s a moral responsibility of the current possessor to redress these past injustices,” said Victoria Reed, the MFA’s curator of provenance, who researched the claim.
The case, she noted, is “more nuanced than many claims we hear about for Nazi-looted works of art.”
Budge’s heirs sold the figurines as part of a larger estate auction following Budge’s death in 1937. The proceeds were sent to the estate’s account at the M.M. Warburg Bank in Hamburg. But then the Warburg bank was “aryanized” — sold to non-Jewish owners.
Some of Budge’s heirs, who were also Jewish, fled the country, while those who remained faced Nazi persecution.
“It seems extremely unlikely that any heirs that made it out of Germany would have seen any of those payments, “ said Reed, who added that those who remained behind wouldn’t have been able to freely access their accounts.
Was it a forced sale? Reed noted that the sale took place in Germany, despite Budge’s explicitly stated wishes.
“It was hard to gauge to what extent the estate had a choice of how to dispose of the collections, so really what we were looking at was what happened to the proceeds,” said Reed. “What we’re looking at is economic persecution that is directly tied to racial persecution.”
The figurines, which depict Italian commedia dell’arte characters, were first bequeathed to the museum in 2006 as part of a larger gift from Edward and Kiyi Pflueger. The Pfluegers had acquired the figures from the collection of Otto and Magdalena Blohm, who purchased them during the 1937 auction.
Thomas Michie, the MFA’s senior curator of decorative arts and sculpture, called the porcelain figures “among the masterpieces by three lesser-known German porcelain manufacturers — Höchst, Fürstenberg, and Fulda.” He added that six of the figurines help form the world’s only known two complete sets of the sculptures by Höchst and Fürstenberg.
“We felt it was important to keep the sets intact,” said Michie via e-mail. “Their animated poses and finely modeled and painted costumes set them apart from hundreds of other figures produced around the same time.”
Melvyn Urbach, the attorney representing the Budge estate, said the heirs, who are based in Europe and the United States, were happy with the outcome.
“Emma Budge . . . wanted these items to be sold outside Germany for the benefit of her heirs,” he said via e-mail. “It is heart warming to see her wish finally come true after 80 years.”Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay