MCMA Provides Further Insights Regarding Its Claim to Ownership of the “Wounded Indian” Sculpture


May 31, 2023

Greg Werkheiser, Founding Partner, Attorney at Law
Cultural Heritage Partners, PLLC
Legal Counsel to the MCMA
(703) 408-2002

Quincy, Massachusetts – Following last week’s front page Washington Post article (PDF version), the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association (MCMA) issues this statement about its ongoing efforts to reclaim the Wounded Indian sculpture, improperly acquired by the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia after its disappearance from MCMA’s Boston premises in 1958.

Acknowledging the Public’s Interest

We appreciate the journalistic efforts of Gregory Schneider and his colleagues at The Washington Post for bringing light to this issue. The flood of supportive messages we have received from across the country affirms the public’s deep concern for art, history, and justice.

As a nonprofit organization, we recognize our responsibility to maintain transparency. The current public interest in this story also presents an opportunity to increase awareness about the role of ownership rights in ensuring protection of and access to cultural artifacts. With that in mind, we aim to answer several basic questions about this controversy.

The Wounded Indian rightfully belongs to MCMA, and we want it returned home to Boston for public display.

  1. What is MCMA?

MCMA was established when the United States was a mere 19 years old. Our founding tradesmen, skilled in mechanical arts, created beautiful things using their hands and machines. Silversmith Paul Revere, MCMA’s first president, exemplifies this rich history. Today, 228 years later, we continue the mission of promoting the mechanical arts by offering grants to nonprofits that train individuals for mechanical trades, especially persons with physical, mental, and economic challenges.

  1. Why has MCMA had an art and objects collection?

MCMA’s collection has traditionally served an educational purpose, illustrating the breadth and potential of American craftsmanship, innovation, and creativity. Our artifacts were once displayed in MCMA’s Mechanics Hall in Boston, a city-block-sized civic arena and exhibition space. When MCMA sold the hall and it was scheduled for demolition in 1958, MCMA ensured the collection’s continued public access by arranging the display of numerous objects at cultural institutions across America.

  1. What are examples of objects in MCMA’s collection?

Our collection still hosts significant artifacts in addition to the Wounded Indian sculpture. Other notable items are the Franklin Printing Press (circa 1717), a hand-drawn 6×9 foot map of Boston (1795) by cartographer Osgood Carlton, a Leyden Jar used by Benjamin Franklin in his electricity experiments, Jane Stuart’s paintings of Paul Revere and George Washington, and an Experimental Steam Engine. These and many more objects are on display at trusted partner institutions.

  1. What is the history of the Wounded Indian?

American sculptor Peter Stephenson created the Wounded Indian in Boston in 1850. He exhibited it in England before bringing it back home. In 1893, Boston collector Dr. James W. Bartlett donated the statue to MCMA, which restored the piece and exhibited it in Mechanics Hall for 65 years. MCMA sold the Hall in 1958 and hired movers to relocate its contents. After the move MCMA leaders were told that the sculpture had been accidentally destroyed and disposed of during the move. For decades, MCMA leaders passed the story of the loss of Wounded Indian down to their successors.

In truth, however, the intact statue was stolen during the move and acquired soon thereafter by James Ricau, a New York collector of questionable ethics, who kept it in his private home for more than two decades. The Chrysler Museum received the Wounded Indian from Ricau in 1986 without verifying if he had legally obtained the statue in the first place. In 1999 a researcher saw photos of the Wounded Indian in MCMA’s records and informed MCMA that she had just seen the statue, fully intact, on display in Virginia. MCMA immediately contacted the Chrysler, which has thus far been unwilling to return the Wounded Indian to MCMA.

  1. Why does MCMA own the Wounded Indian?

As the owner of the Wounded Indian in 1958, MCMA never permitted the statue to be transferred to James Ricau or anyone else, so his acquisition was a theft. Under U.S. law, a thief does not acquire title to the stolen object and cannot transfer ownership rights to anyone else. The Chrysler, therefore, never obtained title from Ricau because he never owned the statue.

  1. Does MCMA sell or trade art or artifacts?

MCMA does not engage in selling or trading art pieces. Instead, we make a serious effort to place art objects in historically appropriate locations where they will be accessible to and can be appreciated by the public.

  1. Will MCMA sell the Wounded Indian when it is returned?

Absolutely not. Selling the sculpture would be inconsistent with MCMA’s mission and practices. A sale would also breach the terms imposed by the original donor. MCMA intends to ensure the Wounded Indian’s permanent display at a trusted Boston institution. 

  1. What conditions did Dr. James W. Bartlett impose when gifting the Wounded Indian to MCMA in 1893?

When gifting the Wounded Indian to MCMA, Dr. James W. Bartlett mandated that MCMA restore the sculpture and publicly display it in Boston. MCMA fulfilled these conditions. MCMA meeting notes from 1894 state: “We had a tenant in our building, a sculptor of ability, Mr. Robert Krause, under whose skillful hand the statue has been restored, and now possesses, to all appearances, its pristine beauty and perfection.” MCMA built a special display within Mechanics Hall where the public admired this breathtaking sculpture for over six decades, until 1958.

  1. Why does the Wounded Indian belong in Boston?

Beyond MCMA’s ownership, the sculpture has strong Boston roots – it was created in Boston by a Bostonian and inspired by Woodland Indians, like those living in the area. Furthermore, it was donated to MCMA, a Boston institution, with the expectation that it would be displayed in Boston. Visitors come to Boston from around the world to soak up Boston’s history and culture, emphasizing the need for the sculpture to be returned to Boston based on MCMA’s rightful ownership, the donor’s original intent, and the statue’s historical relevance.

  1. What was MCMA’s reaction upon discovering in 1999 that the Wounded Indian was intact and at the Chrysler Museum in Virginia?

Deceived by the claim that the Wounded Indian had been destroyed by accident in 1958, MCMA was troubled by a researcher’s assertion in 1999 that she had just viewed the statue fully intact. MCMA leaders decided to investigate for themselves, verifying that Wounded Indian was, indeed, being housed at the Chrysler. Ever since, we have been working to reclaim our property. We have undertaken the necessary steps that any claimant of stolen art should: we researched the history of the piece, notified the Chrysler, asked for their documented proof of rightful ownership, and filed a claim with local and federal law enforcement. MCMA initially considered making an agreement to loan the Chrysler the statue once the Chrysler publicly affirmed MCMA’s ownership and reimbursed MCMA for a portion of our expenses and losses incurred during the Chrysler’s decades of wrongful possession, but MCMA has since decided against pursuing a loan agreement with the museum.

  1. Why has MCMA withdrawn its suggestion of a loan to the Chrysler?

Long-term collaborations require a foundation of trust, and regrettably, the leadership at the Chrysler has consistently proven unreliable. Chrysler acquired the Wounded Indian without sufficient due diligence. When Chrysler curators raised questions about the museum’s lack of documentation of legal ownership at least as early as 1991, museum leaders ignored them. For years after MCMA contacted the Chrysler, museum leaders falsely claimed that their sculpture was the original and ours had been a copy, leading MCMA on an exhausting and expensive journey to debunk this myth. Current Chrysler leaders withheld crucial documents for three years. These documents revealed – among other surprises – that Chrysler leaders had been aware for at least 32 years that the Chrysler lacked documentation of legal ownership of the Wounded Indian. The papers reveal that they also knew and hid for years that the notoriously ethics-averse collector who provided the sculpture had falsified the story of how he acquired it.

MCMA has been entrusted with treasured American artifacts due to the trust we have earned since our inception in the early years of America’s founding. In turn, we need to be able to trust the institutions to which we loan our artifacts.

  1. How does the Chrysler’s concealment of documents violate museum ethics?

Because museums hold their collections in the public interest, provenance documents, particularly those of publicly owned museums, should be fully transparent to establish ownership of art and artifacts. Clear title and supporting documents are vital to preserving the cultural narrative that creates the value of historical artifacts, guaranteeing authenticity, and deterring theft and other illicit activities. For this reason, museums have a responsibility to make their collections and associated research accessible to the public.

  1. The Chrysler asserts that back in 1958 MCMA saw the statue, concluded it was severely damaged, and discarded it; is this a credible tale?

No evidence supports this narrative. This is an absurd claim contradicted by evidence in the Chrysler’s own files. First, the sculpture has never, in fact, been seriously damaged. The Chrysler’s own condition reports confirm that the only damage the sculpture ever endured was “superficial.” Both parties know for certain, therefore, that the only damage to this sculpture has been slight: a few fingers, an arrow tip, and some strands of hair.

Second, MCMA itself had already supervised an expert sculptor in making similar repairs to the piece, so they were well-versed in the condition of the statue and the remedy for any superficial damage. Indeed, no rational person or reputable organization, especially one that had meticulously maintained such a cherished piece of art for 65 years at the center of its collection, would discard the Wounded Indian due to such minor damage.

The only explanation that matches the factual record and common sense is that MCMA was deceived that the statue had been destroyed and disposed of when, in fact, it remained intact and had been stolen.

  1. Is there anything else the public should know?

MCMA’s motto is “Be Just and Fear Not.” This statement encapsulates our approach to this matter from the outset. We are committed to persisting without fear until we can once again fulfill our solemn obligation to ensure that the Wounded Indian is returned for public display in Boston, housed in a trustworthy institution.