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MFA agrees to return disputed art to Italy

New joint effort on stolen works

At left, a marble statue of Sabina sold to the Museum of Fine Arts by a Swiss dealer in 1979. Above, a vase from the Apulian region.
At left, a marble statue of Sabina sold to the Museum of Fine Arts by a Swiss dealer in 1979. Above, a vase from the Apulian region.

After years of denying its collection included any looted art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has agreed to return an unspecified number of works to the Italian government.

In exchange, Italy will loan the MFA objects from the country's vast antiquities holdings, and both sides have pledged to work together to ensure the museum doesn't acquire stolen works in the future.

On Tuesday, MFA director Malcolm Rogers and other museum representatives met in Rome with Italian government officials about the artifacts and yesterday issued a joint two-paragraph statement offering sketchy details of the agreement. According to the statement, the MFA and Italian officials made ``significant progress toward a final agreement" that will include ``the transfer of certain objects of Italian origin in the Museum's collection to Italy."

The statement referred to the impending deal as a ``cultural partnership." But neither side would comment on which objects were included, or when the deal will be finalized. Yet the arrangement appears to mirror one signed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York earlier this year, in which the Met agreed to return a 2,500-year-old Greek bowl called the Euphronios krater, among 20 other objects. In exchange, the Italian government will loan the Met works of ``equivalent beauty and artistic or historical significance."

The MFA's agreement would mark the end of a lengthy drama that began in October, when Italian authorities, pursuing the J. Paul Getty Museum, announced that they also had evidence proving that the MFA had purchased looted works. That led to a series of exchanges between Italian officials and the museum, an initial meeting in May and a second trip to Rome this week.

Maurizio Fiorilli, the attorney representing the Italian government in its negotiations, confirmed yesterday that he had provided the MFA with a list of 42 suspicious works earlier this year, including 16 connected with accused art smuggler Robert E. Hecht Jr. Though he would offer no more specifics on how many works might be headed to Italy, Fiorilli said he expected the final agreement to be signed Sept. 30, and for works to be sent by the MFA before the end of the year.

He also praised the museum for its cooperation.

``The MFA took our dossier seriously and, motivated by the best of intentions, they want to collaborate with the Italian authorities," he said.

Included in Fiorilli's files, which a Globe correspondent in Rome was allowed to view briefly yesterday, were details on three objects long thought to have been looted. They are a 6-foot marble statue of Sabina, sold to the MFA by a Swiss dealer in 1979, and currently on display in the museum's Roman court gallery; a 2,300-year-old jar purchased by New York collectors Shelby White and Leon Levy for the MFA in 1991, and no longer on view; and a vase from the Apulian region of Italy that the MFA purchased from the Royal-Athena Galleries in New York in 1988, and that has been on loan to the Fitchburg Art Museum since 2005.

Hecht is currently on trial in Rome, accused along with former J. Paul Getty Museum curator Marion True of taking part in a smuggling ring. Hecht, once a premier art dealer, has sold or given the MFA about 116 objects over the years, not including coins.

Some archeologists, long critical of the MFA for refusing to return suspicious objects, said the Italian government should have held the museum responsible for keeping looted artifacts.

``The Italian government is letting these museums down without [losing] face which, in my view, they certainly deserve [to do]," said Colin Renfrew, director of the McDonald Institute for Archeological Research in England. ``The MFA, in some ways, has been one of the leaders of acquiring looted antiquities."

The three named pieces in Fiorilli's files were acquired while Cornelius Vermeule was the museum's curator of classical antiquities. Vermeule, who worked closely with Hecht before retiring in 1996, declined comment yesterday, referring calls to the MFA.

Ricardo J. Elia, a Boston University archeology professor and author of a 2001 study showing that more than 94.5 percent of the Apulian vases in the world had inadequate documentation, called on the MFA to revamp its acquisitions policy.

``I'm not going to congratulate the museum for being forced to make this agreement in order to avoid a lawsuit," Elia said yesterday. ``This has to lead to a fundamental change in the way they're acquiring antiquities."

The MFA's current acquisitions policy calls for the museum to conduct ``rigorous research" on an object before it is acquired. But if a piece's ownership history cannot be determined, ``the professional staff of the Museum must use their judgment in determining whether to proceed with the acquisition."

``Obviously, it's a huge loophole," says DePaul University law professor Patty Gerstenblith, an expert on cultural property issues. ``It basically says do your research and then do what you want to do."

The MFA has long contended it did not know of any stolen objects in its collection. But a 1998 examination of MFA records by the Globe showed that 61 of 71 classical objects acquired from 1985 to 1987 had no documentation. Scholars say that's a giveaway that the artifacts were dug out of the ground by looters, and smuggled out of the country by shady dealers.

Attempts by the Italian government to recover antiquities have been rebuffed by various museums over the years. But raids of now-convicted art smuggler Giacomo Medici's Swiss warehouse and Hecht's Paris home, in 1995 and 2000 respectively, uncovered documents and photographs that dramatically strengthened the Italian case.

In February, after being confronted with some of that evidence, the Met in New York agreed to return 21 looted artifacts to Italy, including the Euphronios krater. In June, the Getty and Italian officials released a joint statement similar to that issued by the MFA yesterday, stating that a number of objects would be returned without revealing how many or which ones.

Thomas Hoving, director of the Met when it purchased the Euphronios krater in 1972, said yesterday that the MFA deal benefits both sides.

``They've done the lovely thing they should have done, and that's good for them," he said.

Susanna Pinto reported from Rome. Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

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