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Joseph Lewis’ Egyptian Art Loans at U.S. Museums, Continued (plus Boston’s planned giveback to Turkey)

Entrance to Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ “Art of the Ancient World” galleries

I knew that I could count on CultureGrrl‘s scholarly readers to evaluate the provenances provided to me by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for the eight ancient Egyptian objects on loan to the museum from the recently indicted Virginia collector, Joseph Lewis II.

Archaeologist/blogger David Gill (who first alerted me to the Lewis case), caught my pass and moved the ball down the field: In his Looting Matters post, he examined the ownership histories that Virginia provided to me, saw some possible red flags, and suggested that “curators at Virginia MFA would be wise to ask for a full set of the documentation.”

Let me toss David another one. This just in from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts:

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has one object on loan from Joseph A. Lewis II—a mummy mask currently on view in our Funerary Arts gallery. The Harer Family Trust lent the MFA the mummy mask in 1997. In 2007, the MFA received notification that the object had been sold to Joseph A. Lewis II. Because the object is a loan and not part of the MFA’s permanent collection, we cannot share additional provenance information.

Museum spokesperson Karen Frascona also told me that the BMFA has never had any other objects on loan from Lewis.

Here’s what’s provided on the lone loan’s gallery label:

Mummy Mask
Egyptian, Roman Period, 1st-2nd century A.D.
Painted plaster with plant fiber
Plant fiber has been added to this mask to create the illusion of human hair.
Lent by Joseph A. Lewis II

Frascona said that her museum could not send me an image of the mask for publication: “Because the object is a loan, we do not have reproduction rights.” The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, by contrast, freely provided me with the full provenance and images for its eight ancient Egyptian objects on loan from Lewis.

Here’s what Boston could provide me (at my request)—an image of its Funerary Arts gallery, where the Lewis mask is now on view. (But the mask is not in this picture.)

BMFA’s Egyptian Funerary Arts gallery
Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In other BMFA antiquities news, Geoff Edgers of the Boston Globe reports that the top portion of a Roman Imperial Period “Weary Herakles,” which has long been partly owned by the Boston museum (and now is fully owned), will likely soon be united with its bottom portion and returned to its country of origin. The amputated legs and lower torso reside in a museum in Antalya, Turkey.

Strangely, the BMFA, which commented for the Globe’s article, has yet to issue a press release on this. Edgers’ scoop, reported from Antalya, was published last Sunday.

The BMFA jointly purchased its fragment in 1981 along with Shelby White and the late Leon Levy—the collecting couple whose names have been associated with generous benefactions to the Metropolitan Museum and other nonprofit institutions (scroll down) but also with some dicey antiquities acquisitions.

According to Edgers, “the arrangement [with Levy and White] called for the MFA to take possession of the work—it went on display on Apr. 2, 1982—but to receive the remaining 50 percent ownership only after Levy’s death.” (He died in 2003.)

Here’s Boston’s fragment, with the credit line supplied for the photo by the MFA:

Weary Herakles” (“Herakles Farnese” type), Roman, Imperial Period, mid to late 2nd century A.D., marble, probably from Paros or Aphrodisias, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Gift of Leon Levy and Shelby White and museum purchase with funds donated by the Jerome Levy Foundation
Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Wait a minute! “Purchase with funds donated by the Jerome Levy Foundation”? The Jerome Levy Foundation was established in 1958 by Leon, who named it for his father, Jerome. According to the foundation’s 2009 tax return (the most recent that’s available online), Shelby White is a trustee. It appears that the collectors purchased a half-interest in the sculpture and that the other half was purchased by the museum with money that came from their foundation. (I have no knowledge of whether the money was given in contemplation of this particular purchase.)

Speaking of half-shares, here’s the bottom portion of poor Herakles (with an image of his missing piece on the wall behind it), as installed at the Antalya Museum:

Source: 3D Modeling of the Weary Herakles Statue

Edgers writes:

The MFA has decided the piece should be reunited with its other half
and sent back to Turkey. The museum aims to formalize an agreement with
Turkish officials this year—an agreement that the MFA hopes will
enable Bostonians to see the unified statue through a short-term loan as
early as 2012.

“This is a beautiful piece and we believe it
should be back in Turkey, and that’s a big deal,” said MFA deputy
director Katherine Getchell.

Now if only this reunification philosophy could be extended to another “beautiful piece”—the sundered Parthenon Marbles! Whatever one thinks of repatriation in general, I think that everyone who cares about culture should agree that museums have a moral and art-historical obligation to do whatever it takes to restore the integrity of important works that were meant to be seen intact.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the transparency scale (or is it just because of summer vacation?), I’ve heard not a word from Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum, which also reportedly received Lewis loans. (I’ve e-mailed the museum’s press spokesperson twice, called her once by phone, and e-mailed director Bonnie Speed, to no avail.)

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