There's a growing movement to make sure museums know where their art came from

stolen art
Posted at 11:08 AM, Feb 15, 2022

BOSTON, Mass. — In museums across the country, there is a growing push to return art that was potentially stolen or looted decades or even centuries ago. It all comes during a new era of accountability for public institutions.

In understanding art history, it's important to understand the definition of the word provenance. Provenance refers to the place of origin or earliest known history of something.

Victoria Reed is the Sadler Curator for Provenance at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She has spent the better part of 20 years exploring the history of various works of art at the MFA.

"I think we've seen a sea change since the 1990's in how museums collect and how accountable museums are," Reed said.

According to the Archaeological Institute of America, 85 percent of classical artifacts on the market do not have a documented provenance. Nailing down an exact number of how many works of art in museums across the country may have been stolen or looted.

"We're public institutions and we certainly shouldn't be holding on to stolen art in our galleries," Victoria Reed said.

Tracing the lineage of any one piece of art though can be a complex process.

As an art history professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, David Nolta sees an increasing number of museums paying closer attention to the origins of their art. In many cases those institutions are actively working to return pieces that might have been looted or stolen before being gifted or bought by a museum.

"Who really owns a painting, the person who pays for it? The person whose work of art it was or is?" Nolta said.

"A lot of things are in museums today where we question should they be in a museum," he added.

Last month, amid growing calls for restitution the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston returned "View of Beverwijk." The painting was returned to the family of the man who originally owned it before Nazis looted the painting from a vault in Hungary during World War II.

"In some ways, it's a worst-case scenario, to learn something in a collection that has been conserved and exhibited for years, was stolen. But it's important we redress some of these losses," Victoria Reed from the MFA said.