Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Reaches Purchase Agreement for 17th-Century Tapestries
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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Reaches Purchase Agreement for 17th-Century Tapestries
The Palazzo dell' Annona, from THE LIFE OF POPE URBAN VIII, Barberini Manufactory, Italian (Rome), 1663–1679. Tapestry weave (wool warp; wool and silk wefts). Overall: 565.2 x 132.1 cm (222 1/2 x 52 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MA.- Provenance research conducted by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has resulted in new discoveries about the history of ownership of four 17th-century tapestries in the MFA’s collection. The Museum’s research revealed that the tapestries—given to the MFA in the 1950s by Eugene Garbáty, a German Jewish art collector and refugee—had been included in a forced sale in 1935 of the stock of the art dealership Margraf and Co. in Berlin, a firm run by Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer. The MFA contacted the Oppenheimer heirs in 2010 to inform them of the discovery and to begin settlement discussions, which concluded recently.

“In the course of provenance research on our collection, we learned that these tapestries were part of the Oppenheimer family’s heritage,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “We were pleased to inform the heirs of this discovery, and to work with them on a resolution, which now gives the tapestries a permanent home at the Museum.”

The four tapestries (each measuring approximately 222 x 48 inches) were part of a larger series that depicted the life and achievements of Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini, 1568–1644). The entire series, begun in 1663 and finished in 1679 (though largely complete in 1676), was commissioned after the Pope’s death by his nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini. The tapestries hung in the Barberini Palace in Rome until the end of the 19th century, when the series was disassembled and sold. Originally, there were 34 tapestries made out of colorful wool and silk. Among them were 10 large narrative panels, of which nine are now in the Vatican Museum in Rome, and one is in the Musées Royaux d’Art et Histoire in Brussels. The series also included 10 horizontal border panels, called friezes, and 14 vertical border panels, known as pilasters.

By 1928, eight of the pilasters from the series, including the four at the MFA, were owned by Margraf in Berlin. In 1933, the Oppenheimers, who were Jewish, fled Germany to avoid Nazi persecution and relocated to France. In their absence, they were forced out of their management roles at Margraf and were forbidden from performing any legal transactions for the company. As a well-known Jewish business, Margraf was dissolved by the Nazi regime, its gallery stock sold off quickly and at low prices in a series of auctions held in Berlin in 1935. The eight Barberini tapestries were included in the Margraf liquidation sale held at the auction house Paul Graupe on April 26–27, 1935. Before the auction, the tapestries were estimated at 3500 RM (Reichsmarks were the currency in Germany from 1924 until 1948), but sold for only 530 RM to an unknown buyer. Discovery of this information by Victoria Reed, the MFA’s Monica S. Sadler Curator for Provenance, helped to determine that the tapestries were included in this forced Nazi-era sale, from which the Oppenheimers were unable to realize the proceeds. The Museum then contacted their heirs. Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer lost their lives before the end of World War II—Jakob in France in 1941, and Rosa at Auschwitz in 1943. After the war, the business shares in Margraf were legally transferred to their heirs, but almost none of the gallery’s artwork was recovered.

Eugene Garbáty (1880–1966) purchased six of the eight tapestries from an unknown dealer shortly after they sold at auction in 1935. He was told that they had come from a castle in Austria, and was unaware that they had belonged to Margraf or been in a forced sale. Garbáty himself was a victim of Nazi persecution; the family company of which he was part owner, Garbáty Zigarettenfabrik (Garbáty Cigarette Factory), was Aryanized in 1938 and he was forced to flee Germany later that year. He succeeded in bringing four of the tapestries with him when he immigrated to the United States in 1939, later giving them to the MFA between 1950 and 1952. The tapestries have been on view at the MFA in the 1950s, then again in the 1990s. The Museum plans to hang them in the Koch Gallery in the future.

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