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MFA’s Gets A Load of Rothschild Loot

BBurrLiterally. Bettina Burr (known as Nina, pictured left)–the daughter of Baroness Bettina Looram de Rothschild, who reclaimed about 250 pieces of Nazi-looted art from Austria after it passed a new restitution law in 1998–has donated 186 objects to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The trove, which includes jewelry, jeweled boxes, furniture, prints, drawings, miniatures, paintings and rare books, is most of what remains that had been passed down to her and her relatives from her ancestors in the Austrian Rothschild family. The great collectors were Nathaniel (d. 1905) and Albert von Rothschild (d. 1911).

I’ve written the story of the gift for tomorrow’s New York Times, and it’s online nowRothschild Family Treasures Find a Resting Place in Boston.

But there’s much more in my notes, for example:

4. Portrait of Emma Hart_George RomneyAmong the highlights are George Romney’s Portrait of Emma Hart (at right), of the woman who later became Lady Hamilton and was Romney’s favorite model. This seems to be an early version of her, and though the MFA  did not put a date on it, it said that “the painting was in good condition when it arrived at the MFA, and cleaning revealed its glowing colors and exciting brushwork. The location of this particular work was previously unknown to scholars, and it has since proven to be the primary version of one of the artists’ most popular compositions.”

There’s also a Swiss-made Oval snuff box with miniature of Catherine the Great (about 1775, pictured below) and many pieces of jewelry and jeweled snuff boxes and objets de vertu.

Thomas Michie, the MFA’s senior curator of European decorative arts and sculpture, said that the gift “transports us into the ranks of European museums that own small, precious objects, the kinds of things that have not traditionally been Yankee taste.” Which museums, I asked? He said the Wallace Collection and the V&A–though not in quantity. “Our gift is small in quantity, but it is wonderful in quality.”

Books are another highlight, said Michie, adding that there will be three cases of them in the exhibition of the gift, which opens on Mar. 1 and runs till June 21: Restoring a Legacy: Rothschild Family Treasures.

You can see more in the museum’s press release.

10. Oval snuffbox with miniature of Catherine the GreatWhen the exhibition ends, 14 items will be returned to Burr, as they are promised gifts, to be transferred when she dies. But the rest, Michie said, can and will probably be integrated with the rest of the collection. “I haven’t looked that far ahead,” he said, “but it won’t be hard to fold a lot of these items into the permanent collection galleries. The museum is actually planning an 18th Century French gallery, though “it’s not funded yet.” But, he added, “now we have the material for it, and that’s where these things will turn up.”

One of the things I loved about this story concerns Burr herself. Her relationship with the museum began when she volunteered and became a tour guide, giving introductory and specialized tours. Later she worked on the cataloging of Japanese woodblock prints and became an overseer. It was only in 2006 that she was elected to the board of trustees.

Burr told me that she talked about making this gift with her mother, who died in 2012. “She thought it was a fine idea,” she said.

Indeed it is.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the MFA

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