MFA makes amends in probable plundering

By June 29, 2011July 18th, 2011Art Market, Art Security

The Museum of Fine Arts has agreed to pay restitution to the heir of a Jewish art dealer killed at Auschwitz after determining that a 17th-century Dutch painting in its collection was once owned by him and was probably plundered by the Nazis.

With the deal, which culminates a more than decade-long investigation by the museum, the MFA remains at the leading edge of an emerging museum practice to proactively research works with little ownership history and make amends if they are found to have been acquired under questionable circumstances. Since 2004, the MFA has returned three other works seized during World War II.

In this case, the MFA agreed to pay an undisclosed sum and, in exchange, the heir of Walter Westfeld agreed to allow the museum to keep the oil portrait of a man and woman by Eglon van der Neer.

“They should be commended for both acknowledging there might be some questions in this work and seeking information about them, and then pursuing the questions until they were resolved,’’ said James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago who will become president of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles in August.

In 2000, the MFA took the then-unusual step of posting an image of the van der Neer painting online, along with six other works, to highlight its own questions about its path to Boston. Fred Westfield, Walter’s nephew and a Tennessee resident, contacted the museum in 2004 after learning of the piece’s existence via a Google search. He’s been talking ever since with the MFA’s curator for provenance, Victoria S. Reed.

“We feel very good and very thankful for how the museum dealt with us,’’ said Westfield, 84, a retired economics professor. “We had a lot of help from some of the people at the museum over the years, once we started to claim that the painting really did belong to us.’’

MFA officials said they were pleased to be retaining the painting by the Dutch artist, who died in 1703. The 29-by-27-inch work, which depicts a wealthy couple sitting in their living room, was purchased from a New York dealer in 1941 for $7,500. In recent years, similar van der Neers have sold at auction for as much $550,000. The MFA’s work is on view in the Robert and Ruth Remis Gallery.

“We have an amicable situation where the claimant and the museum would really like to see the painting stay in the museum’s collection,’’ said Katherine Getchell, the MFA’s deputy director. “It’s a great way to resolve an outstanding issue.’’

George Shackelford, chairman of the MFA’s art of Europe department, said the painting is an important work in the museum’s collection.

Re-posted from Boston.com.