MFA Boston Acquires What’s Left of Legendary Rothschild Collection

1. Rothschild Family_1937

The Rothschild Family in 1937. Photo: Courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston, is the lucky recipient of a major gift from heirs of the Rothschild family. The works, 186 in total, are part of a treasure trove of family heirlooms that was looted during World War II, but had been partially restored over the ensuing decades. (For more news regarding acquisitions at the MFA Boston, see JFK Portrait by Jamie Wyeth Lands at MFA Boston and Finest Collection of Japanese Art in US Given to Four Museums.)

On March 1, the exhibition “Restoring a Legacy: Rothschild Family Treasures,” a show which displays roughly 80 of these objects, will open at the MFA. The gift includes European decorative arts, furniture, prints, drawings, paintings, and personal objects.

Many were seized in 1938 following the “Anschluss” when Nazi Germany annexed Austria. Bettina Burr, an heir to the family who is vice president of the MFA’s board of trustees, donated the works. They were were originally owned by her grandparents Baron and Baroness Alphonse and Clarice de Rothschild, of Vienna, who were part of the illustrious banking family.

The Nazis seized Rothschild properties and collections in Vienna, specifically targeting the family’s art collection for confiscation. This included nearly 3,500 works of art, and many were selected for the Führermuseum that Hitler was planning for Linz.

Following the war, Allied forced discovered the looted artworks in Austrian salt mines and started the process of restitution. In 1947 Bettina Looram de Rothschild (mother of Bettina Burr) visited the Austrian mines and was able to identify particular crates of art, some of which were returned to her soon after. Despite this, she still had to donate 250 of the best works to the Austrian state in exchange for permission to export the collection back to the US, where she was living.

A selection of works from that group of 250 were returned in 1999, when Austria passed a national restitution law. But the family sold many of these at a landmark sale at Christie’s in 1999 that raised $90 million, according to the New York Times, which, at the time, called the sale “perhaps the largest single-owner sale in [Christie’s] 233-year history.” The sale touted Old Master paintings including portraits by Franz Hals, medieval illuminated manuscripts, and even a Louis XVI royal commode.

“Through my mother’s tenacity and courage,” Burr said in a statement, “60 years after the 1938 Anschluss, these works were returned to my family. Now, as my mother would have wished, I am delighted that this collection will stay at the MFA for as long as I can envision.”

Included in the exhibition is Portrait of Emma Hart (the mistress of Lord Nelson), by English painter George Romney. (Hart sat for Romney over 100 times—see 7 Legendary Mistresses in Art History.) In an interview with the Times, Burr told of how she was “mesmerized” by the painting. “I remember stopping and just staring…She has so much allure, you couldn’t help but ogle her.”

Portrait of Emma Hart by George Romney Photo: Courtesy MFA Boston.

Portrait of Emma Hart by George Romney Photo: Courtesy MFA Boston.


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