April 2005

‘Expulsion’ To Go Home

The San Diego Museum of Art will return a Spanish colonial-era painting to Mexico, after being alerted by that country’s authorities that the painting was almost certainly stolen from a village church several years ago. The museum’s trustees voted to authorize restitution “once it has been conclusively established that our painting and the stolen work from Hidalgo are one and the same,” said director Derrick Cartwright in a written statement to ARTnews.

The case was still “under active investigation” by U.S. and Mexican authorities, Cartwright said, adding that the painting “has recently been identified by authorities in Hidalgo as a work taken from a church in San Juan Tepemazalco in 2000.” In an earlier statement, the museum said it was pursuing a full refund of money it paid to a Mexico City-based gallery in 2000 for the painting, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1728), by an unknown artist. Published estimates of its value have ranged from $10,000 to $50,000.

The museum has offered to restore the painting at its own expense before returning it, said Cartwright. The work was slashed from its frame and damaged during the theft, so the museum proposed that Mexican authorities send the painting’s original frame and other fragments left behind at the time of its theft. If the painting matches with the frame and fragments, it will be conclusive proof to deaccession the work, said the museum statement.

“We possess both the means and the expertise to reintegrate the painting with some parts apparently left behind in Mexico and thereby return it to something close to its original condition,” said Cartwright.

The San Diego museum followed due-diligence guidelines before buying the work, seeking the advice of an expert on Latin American colonial art, according to the statement. Its provenance came to the museum’s attention two years after the purchase. Curators discovered discrepancies in the documentation provided by the dealer while preparing a catalogue of selected works from the museum. They then contacted Hidalgo state authorities, prompting investigations by authorities in both countries.

An official at the Mexican embassy in Washington, D.C., speaking on condition of anonymity, said the museum had acted “in a completely responsible and cooperative way.” The painting was considered part of Mexican national patrimony, the official said, and, therefore, should not have been removed from the country.

–Roger Atwood