After a decades-long battle over its ownership, a 170-year-old sculpture will soon journey from Virginia back to its home in Boston.
The story of the statue, called The Wounded Indian, and its disputed provenance begins with one of Boston’s most recognizable historical figures: Paul Revere. In 1795, Revere founded the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association (MCMA), a club for Boston tradesmen. In the years that followed, the group assembled a collection of artifacts from early American history, including the first pocket watch made from interchangeable parts and a Leyden Jar that Benjamin Franklin used for electrical experiments.
“It’s a very eclectic collection, because it’s an organization that really had no intention of having a collection,” Peter Lemonias, a past president of MCMA, tells Malcolm Gay of the Boston Globe.
The association acquired The Wounded Indian in 1893. The sculpture, thought to be the first major work made entirely from Vermont marble, was on view in the group’s large hall for many years. But when the MCMA faced financial troubles in the 1950s, it sold the hall, per the New York Times’ Tom Mashberg. During this process, The Wounded Indian vanished. Officials were told that it had been destroyed in the move.
Forty years passed. Then, in 1999, a researcher contacted the MCMA with startling news: The sculpture was intact. In fact, it was on display at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia.
The museum had acquired the statue, along with other pieces, from collector James Ricau in 1986. According to the Boston Globe, one of the museum’s own publications describes Ricau as having “little concern for documentation.”
Initially, the Chrysler defended its claim to the statue. For a time, it even questioned whether the MCMA’s work could have been a copy. Erik Neil, director of the Chrysler, told the Washington Post’s Gregory S. Schneider in May, “I feel strongly that we have the ethical and legal right to this piece.”
As the situation escalated, the MCMA began to suspect that the Chrysler wasn’t acting in good faith. According to the Washington Post, after negotiations fell apart in 2020, the association went to the FBI, arguing that the statue had been stolen back in the 1950s.
“We’re a small organization compared to the Chrysler,” Chuck Sulkala, president of the MCMA, tells the Boston Globe, “but we were dead serious that we wanted this back.”
The FBI’s Art Crime Team began an investigation earlier this year. Now, the Norfolk museum has officially agreed to send the sculpture back to Boston. The return could happen potentially as early as the end of August. In a statement to the Boston Globe, Neil says that the museum “is pleased with the amicable resolution.”
Upon the sculpture’s return, the MCMA plans to display it publicly, which could stir up even more controversy. Created by Boston artist Peter Stephenson in 1850, The Wounded Indian is modeled on an ancient Roman sculpture called The Dying Gaul. Stephenson’s work is part of a larger movement of white artists who created “romantic depictions of dying Indians in the context of westward expansion,” as the Boston Globe puts it.
For example, another artwork in this category is The Dying Tecumseh (1856). This sculpture mythologizes the Shawnee leader “as a timeless ‘noble savage,’ dangerously and erroneously suggesting that his death and the rapacious expansion of the United States were inevitable,” as the Smithsonian American Art Museum writes in its description of the piece.
David Penney, associate director for museum scholarship, exhibitions and public engagement at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, tells the Boston Globe that these works present a false narrative of America’s foundations.
“It’s this notion that there was a broad and empty continent, sporadically inhabited by wandering tribes—that’s the language of the early 19th century, not mine,” he adds. These kinds of sculptures “play a very specific role in the history of American art that really doesn’t have much to do with American Indians.”