Home Arts Bitter dispute rages over ownership of marble sculpture of Indigenous man

Bitter dispute rages over ownership of marble sculpture of Indigenous man

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The Wounded Indian, a life-size marble sculpture of a mortally wounded Native warrior, has long been a key work in the collection of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. But he is now at the center of an ongoing restitution dispute.

Modern members of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association (MCMA), a philanthropic organization founded by American patriot Paul Revere in 1795, claim to have owned and displayed the sculpture for more than 60 years. Revere’s descendants now claim the sculpture on display at the Norfolk museum was stolen, demanding its return and calling for a criminal investigation.

Created around 1850 by British artist Peter Stephenson, then only 26 years old, the sculpture was exhibited in Boston, USA, notable for being the first life-size figure made entirely of American marble, quarried in the state. from Vermont. The Native American population had, by then, been largely displaced west of the Mississippi River, which may explain the sympathetic depiction of an enemy on the verge of death and no longer a threat.

Stephenson was an up-and-coming artist who grew up in the British county of Yorkshire before learning his trade in Rome, Italy. The work is based on The dying Gaul, the ancient Roman statue now in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. Stephenson crossed the Atlantic to settle in Boston, but met a tragic end when he died in 1861, at the age of 37, while incarcerated in an American mental institution. The Wounded Indian came to MCMA in 1893 after a previous owner asked for help preserving the sculpture.

It was given to the MCMA. If people give you a gift and they tell you to take care of it and display it for the people of Boston, that’s what you do.

Paul Revere III, descendant of Paul Revere

“It was donated to the MCMA,” says Paul Revere III, a lawyer and four-time great-grandson of the MCMA founder. “If people give you a gift and they tell you to take care of it and display it for the people of Boston, that’s what you do.”

The MCMA exhibited the sculpture until 1958, when it sold the building in which it was displayed. It was assumed that the artwork was destroyed when the MCMA house was emptied.

Yet the MCMA found The Wounded Indian after a visitor to the association in 1999 reported seeing the artwork at the Chrysler Museum. Colleagues who visited learned that automotive heir Walter Chrysler, whose art collection was donated to the museum, had acquired the sculpture in 1986 as part of a collection by dealer James Ricau . The work is now housed in a gallery that bears Ricau’s name, while a wall panel indicates that Ricau owned the sculpture “in 1967”. Still, there is no evidence of where Ricau got it. “He signed an affidavit saying he acquired it in good faith. We have no reason to doubt that,” says Chrysler manager Eric H. Neil. “We’ve been very forthcoming and open. “

When first approached by the MCMA, Chrysler’s attorneys questioned why the association had not reported the sculpture missing and insisted it must be a copy. In 2020, the MCMA and the Chrysler nearly struck a deal that would have acknowledged MCMA ownership of the work, sent the sculpture to Boston for a six-month display, and paid the MCMA $200,000 for legal costs.

The Chrysler refused to pay the MCMA, and still does. “$200,000? I don’t have $200,000 to spend on someone going away,” Neil says.

Last year, lawyers for the museum surprised the MCMA with a box of documents containing accounts written by a Chrysler curator struggling to determine where Ricau might have bought the sculpture – it was proof, for the MCMA, that the Chrysler never got a good title. “We’ve uncovered all the information they’ve been hiding from us,” MCMA President Chuck Sulkula said. “If this is how you want to be, too bad for you, now we want it back.” The MCMA, without galleries today, would find a place to show it, he predicted.

At Chrysler, Neil says, “We acted in good faith, that’s our position. There is no reason in this case to think that anything bad has happened. There still isn’t, in fact. If it was stolen, why didn’t they report it stolen? »

“All the information the MCMA has comes from us. The glaring discrepancy in provenance rests on them. What were the circumstances of the separation of this piece from the MCMA? Neil said. “They say they had a fire and things were damaged. Does this mean that if the sculpture had remained with them, it would have been destroyed in a fire? »

Neil raised the comparison between The Wounded Indian, on the one hand, and Nazi-looted art without provenance and colonial looting on the other. He noted that the Chrysler Museum just sent an ancient basalt monolith lost during the Biafran War back to nigeria.

As for The Wounded Indianhe says, “Boston in 1958 is not considered war-torn. There are no Nazis knocking on the door, there are no midnight grave robbers. They took the decision to get rid of it. They regret it now, but maybe at the time they had very good reasons for doing it. There is nothing forced, illegal or wrongful about it .

Estimates regarding the value of The Wounded Indian cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, with buyers likely limited to museums that collect mid-19th century American sculpture. If the figurine is returned to Boston, it will not end up at auction, underlines Paul Revere III. “It’s not about having the object and turning it into money. It’s about inheritance.

Now Chrysler may have pushed any potential settlements further into the future. The museum, which had dropped its position that the figure was a copy and said the version once held by the MCMA was the same work now at Chrysler, again changed its mind. “It is clear to me that there were indeed at least two versions of this sculpture and possibly more,” says Neil.

Yet Thomas Kline, an attorney for the MCMA, says Peter Stephenson worked with casts, but noted that provenance records show the association never had a cast copy and photos document the same damage. at the fingers of the marble statue at MCMA and Chrysler. “For director Neil to go back to that refuted ‘copycat’ storyline is a telling admission of their realization that the law and ethics are not on their side,” he says.

For Neil, this is still not sufficient proof: “The fact that we know that there were other versions means that we cannot categorically assume that the two pieces are one and the same; it is a matter of possibility or probability but not certainty.

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