MFA returns looted sculpture to Italy

The National Gallery plans to announce on Monday the return of a marble sculpture looted from Italy, where Nazi troops likely stole the object during World War II, The Globe has learned.

Known as the “Portrait of a Man”, the badly damaged carving of a head dates to the 3rd or 4th century CE and may represent Emperor Maximianus Herculius. It was excavated in late 1931 as part of a joint archaeological project in Minturno, Italy, by the University of Pennsylvania and the Superintendence of Campania in Naples.

The sculpture was one of many archaeological finds inventoried and published in a catalog of works from excavations in 1938.

Victoria Reed, MFA’s curator for provenance, said there was widespread looting of archaeological storage facilities around Minturno during World War II. She added that while they cannot say that some German troops were responsible for the theft, there is “a lot of circumstantial evidence” that he went missing during the war.

“There has been so much looting in this particular town,” she said. “We don’t know exactly how it started, or when, but it was most likely around that time.”

When the museum purchased the sculpture from a Swiss gallery in 1961, the nose, which had remained intact during the excavation, was missing. Antiquity also bore no provenance or collection history.

“Portrait of a Man”, which may represent Emperor Maximianus Herculius Roman, dates to the third or fourth century AD.© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Samuel Putnam Avery Fund

“They of course didn’t do extensive due diligence, but I don’t think they knew it was from that particular site at the time they acquired it,” Reed said.

She noted that the MFA exhibited the sculpture from 2000 to 2008, adding that it was also exhibited at Brandeis University in 1969 and again at the MFA in 1977.

In July 2019, however, University of Arizona professor Irene Bald Romano informed the MFA that the artifact went missing during World War II.

“It was quite clearly Italian property as something that had been scientifically excavated and published” in the 1938 catalog, said Reed, who wrote to Italy’s culture ministry that fall. “They confirmed that he was illegally kidnapped and that he belonged to the Italian state.”

After the MFA board voted to dispose of the work, the museum finalized the paperwork in December 2021, before returning the object to Italy earlier this year.

The return marks the third time this year that the MFA has announced a restitution.

In January, the museum announced the return of a Dutch painting looted during World War II, and in February, the MFA returned a pair of antiquities to the Republic of Mali.

Malcolm Gay can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.

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