The Chrysler Museum of Art in Virginia is currently facing accusations of improper provenance and theft in regard to a marble statue that has been on display in their galleries since 1989. The Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association (MCMA), the last-known owner of Peter Stephenson’s 19th-century marble statue “Wounded Indian,” claims in a statement the work was stolen from its collection during a move in the 1950s.
Stephenson, a born and bred Bostonian, carved the “Wounded Indian” from Vermont-quarried marble in 1850 and showcased it in England before bringing it back stateside. After the artist died at the age of 37 in 1861, the sculpture made its way from the Boston-based Mercantile Library Association’s collection to that of William Emerson Baker in 1877 and then again to James W. Bartlett in 1889. According to the Washington Post‘s initial report last week on the alleged holes in the sculpture’s provenance, Bartlett stored it in the basement of the MCMA in Boston before donating it to the association in 1893 on the condition that was properly maintained and shown publicly.
The MCMA displayed the statue in its exhibition hall for 65 years until it went missing during a relocation in 1958. The association was led to believe that the sculpture had been irreparably damaged during the move and was discarded.
“Wounded Indian” appeared in the Chrysler Museum’s collection in 1986, when the museum’s benefactor, Walter P. Chrysler Jr., included it in his last batch of acquisitions before he died in 1988. Chrysler Jr. reportedly acquired the sculpture from art collector James Ricau, an “eccentric character” who “had little concern for documentation, for either posterity or profit,” according to H. Nichols B. Clark, a Chrysler Museum curator who wrote the institution’s book on the collection of statues.
It was Clark who flagged the sculpture’s alleged lack of provenance in 1991, eight years before the director of the MCMA visited the museum in 1999 to confirm a researcher’s claims that the sculpture was still in existence and on public display.
Greg Werkheiser, the Cultural Heritage Partners attorney representing the MCMA, told Hyperallergic that Ricau lied about the statue’s origins when contacted by Clark. In 1999, after the MCMA began pressing the Chrysler for answers, the museum implied that MCMA may have owned a copy of the sculpture and that the one displayed in Norfolk was the original.
The association asked the Chrysler Museum to loan out the statue for a six-month display in Boston, but that never materialized. While the museum maintains that the MCMA discarded the statue due to damages and now regrets it, Director Erik Neil confirmed to the Washington Post that the institution does not have “full provenance” on all the objects in Chrysler Jr.’s collection.
Cultural Heritage Partners only recently acquired all of the museum’s documents on the statue, including Clark’s 1991 inquiries that questioned the museum’s ownership of the sculpture as well as the condition report from its acquisition indicating that the marble only sustained superficial damages.
In 2020, the association requested that the museum acknowledge MCMA’s ownership of the statue and reimburse the thousands of dollars MCMA has spent in legal assistance and research fees after being allegedly deceived about the statue’s provenance. The Chrysler Museum has since updated its collection provenance to reflect that the MCMA once owned the statue, but called the reimbursement request a “frankly outrageous monetary demand,” per the Washington Post report.
“It is incredibly commonplace and not unethical for an institution that has been improperly denied ownership of something that it owns for decades to request reimbursement,” Werkheiser explained. “What makes this even more offensive is that a lot of those costs were driven by the acts of deception by the Chrysler.”
Now the MCMA is instead asking for the statue’s return, and Werkheiser said the association has brought the case to law enforcement and may pursue litigation if necessary.
In response to the MCMA’s claims, the Chrysler Museum director, Erik Neil, told Hyperallergic that “there has never been any indication the statue was stolen, the MCMA never reported it as stolen, it has never been on the Art Loss Registry.”
“This is not a case of looting, forced sale from an oppressive regime, or grave robbing,” Neil continued. And in regards to the MCMA’s allegations that the museum withheld the documents, Neil maintained that the Chrysler Museum staff “has been very forthcoming with information to MCMA,” allowing the group to view pertinent documents such as board meeting notes and purchase agreements. Neil also argues that the statue arrived at the museum with “significant loss” and required “substantial repair and cleaning,” and that the museum continues to be a good steward for the work.
The MCMA was founded by silversmith Paul Revere (better known for the phrase “The British are coming!”) in 1795. “Since the founding of this country, the guys in MCMA are deeply committed to telling these stories about innovation, and they’ve been honest in this dialogue,” Werkheiser said.