Eight Nigerian artifacts that were probably stolen decades ago and illegally sent to the United States have been returned to the West African country by the Museum of Fine Arts, according to museum officials, who said Nigerian authorities planned to announce the transfer on Thursday.
The decision to return the artworks, including a 2,000-year-old terra-cotta head, was the culmination of an 18-month pursuit through dusty records and old gallery brochures, untangling an art-world mystery that spanned several continents. Along the way, the MFA discovered that one item, a brass altar figure, had probably been stolen from the royal palace in Benin City as recently as the 1970s.
All of the works were purchased by the late Marblehead collectors William and Bertha Teel, longtime supporters of the MFA, whose 2013 bequest gave the museum more than 300 works. The couple, according to the museum, had no idea of the shady provenance of items in their collection.
The Teels’ gift to the MFA included access to the couple’s papers, which helped the museum investigate the ownership histories and determine that the pieces should be returned.
That sleuthing and repatriation earned praise from specialists who have, in the past, slammed the MFA for having lax standards in dealing with works with dubious histories. The specialists say the museum has become a national leader in researching historic works and voluntarily returning them when they’re found to have questionable ownership histories.
“It’s very impressive,” said Patty Gerstenblith, the DePaul University College of Law professor who serves as chairwoman of the President’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee. “The MFA is pretty out-front.”
Most museums don’t make much of an effort when they acquire new works, other than to post images of them online so that anybody with concerns about the history of the art can respond. The MFA has gone beyond that, Gerstenblith said. The MFA now voluntarily and rigorously researches object histories and, if one is determined to be questionable, will find a way to make amends.
All of this is relatively new in the museum field. Many American museum collections were built by swashbuckling curators and wealthy collectors who cared little about how pieces were acquired, as long as they ended up on display in a gallery. Such works included everything from priceless antiquities potentially looted from ancient archeological sites to paintings stolen by the Nazis, funneled through art dealers, and purchased during and after World War II.
But changes have come in the last decade, driven by pressure from outside the United States to return looted works as well as a slew of new ethical guidelines put in place by museums and museum associations.
The MFA, in its effort to be particularly aggressive in investigating questionable works, made Victoria Reed the first full-time museum curator of provenance in the United States in 2010, and she played a key role in researching the artifacts from the Teels.
The MFA’s investigation into the Teels’ works began about 18 months ago.
Chris Geary, the musem’s then-curator of African and Oceanic art, started by sorting out the collectors’ records, which were stuffed in cardboard boxes. Geary then handed those files off to Reed.
Reed examined Nigeria’s export laws, which require that the government approve any antiquities being removed from the country. She almost immediately began to doubt the authenticity of some of the bills of sale and export licenses from Nigeria that came with the works.
“Some of these jumped out pretty quickly,” Reed said.
But shoddy paperwork wasn’t the only factor. Suspicions have long existed surrounding many antiquities from Africa. Terra-cotta heads, for example, are on the “red list” of various types of works at risk for looting compiled by the International Council of Museums.
While the true path of the works from Nigeria to the MFA remains sketchy, there were other clues that Reed pursued. A photo of a 4-foot-tall wooden ancestral figure in a catalog places it at the Oron Museum in Nigeria as late as 1970. The next time it appeared in records was in 2001 at Galerie Walu in Zurich. Teel bought it from the dealer three years later. As for the Benin altar figure, it was probably stolen from the royal palace in 1976, according to Reed. The Davis Gallery in New Orleans acquired it in 1997, selling it to Teel two years later.
Research in hand, Reed contacted Nigeria’s National Commission of Museums and Monuments to confirm that the works had not been approved for export and that some of the paperwork had been forged. The commission confirmed the findings and requested the works be returned.
William Teel had served as an MFA overseer from 1990 until his death, and he and his wife, Bertha, were eminent benefactors of the museum, giving more than $5 million in art and cash over time. Teel was also a trustee at the Peabody Essex Museum for more than two decades.
William Teel died in December 2012, leaving the MFA 308 objects. The Teels had already given the MFA a terra-cotta head in 1991, and they made a partial gift of a memorial screen in 1996.
Reed said she doesn’t blame the collectors for the problems with their gift.
“Mr. Teel purchased these on good faith,” she said. “He didn’t have a provenance researcher, so I don’t think we can really hold him up to the same standards. He certainly bought these fully believing they were on the market legally.”
Reed said that the blame also shouldn’t rest with the dealers who sold the works to the Teels — galleries in New Orleans, Brussels, Zurich, and France — as they believed the works were sold legitimately.
But this isn’t the first time questions had been raised about the Teels’ collection.
In 1997, two works from Mali purchased by the couple made headlines when they were featured in an exhibition at the MFA. The Boston Globe, as part of a series detailing how looted pieces ended up in museum galleries, asked the MFA for information about the ownership history of those works. The museum would not provide it, even after demands from the government of Mali.
Those two works, which were part of the 2013 bequest, are still being reviewed by the MFA, Reed said.
That’s encouraging news for Susan K. McIntosh, the Rice University anthropologist and Malian archeology expert who criticized the museum in 1997 for failing to release ownership histories.
“Cultural values and perspectives change very slowly over time, and this is something we’ve been struggling with for decades,” said McIntosh. “The decision to voluntarily repatriate is one more signal we’re moving in the right direction.”
During Reed’s tenure, in which she began as a researcher in 2003, the MFA has returned 26 works in all, from pieces plundered during World War II to objects taken illegally from Italy.
Boston University archeology professor Ricardo Elia, a critic of the MFA in the past for its collection practices, said the museum should be applauded this time. The key shift, he says, is that the museum appears to have changed its philosophy when viewing artworks with incomplete ownership histories.
“In the past, they said the burden is on you to prove,” he said. “In this case, it’s different. There’s just enough suspicion and doubt and the absence of an export license. It shows the MFA is trying to be a good citizen.”
Geoff Edgers can be reached at email@example.com.