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San Diego Museum of Art Offers to Return Painting
Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (artist unknown). Mexico, Hidalgo, 1728. Oil on canvas. 70 x 46 in.

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA.- The San Diego Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously in a meeting yesterday to support staff efforts aimed at the eventual restitution of an 18th-century Mexican painting, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The Board’s action paves the way for the painting’s return to Mexican government officials who had been investigating whether or not the work of art, purchased by SDMA in late 2000, was the same one that was later revealed to have been stolen from a small church in Hidalgo, Mexico, earlier that year.

Through diplomatic channels, SDMA has proposed that Mexican authorities send the painting’s original frame and other fragments left behind at the time of its theft. Matching the painting with the frame and fragments should provide the conclusive proof required to deaccession the work from SDMA’s permanent collection. Furthermore, SDMA is offering to have Expulsion restored at its own expense before returning it to appropriate parties in Mexico, who are still to be determined. Such restoration would strive to mitigate harm done by the art thieves at the time that it was taken from the small church of San Juan Tepemazalco. Simultaneously, SDMA is preparing a demand for refund of the full purchase price of the painting from the Mexico City-based art gallery from which the Expulsion was acquired four years ago.

Almost two months ago, Mexican federal government representatives, using official channels, informed SDMA that they were actively investigating circumstances surrounding the theft of an 18th-century painting, one of three religious objects apparently taken from a church in San Juan Tepemazalco in the State of Hidalgo, Mexico, in early 2000. U.S. Customs Officials, working in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, were asked to determine if a painting of a similar description purchased by SDMA later that year was one of these stolen objects. Pursuant to a mutual Assistance Treaty between the two governments, the U.S. Department of Justice and SDMA have fully cooperated in the investigation.

At the time of the painting’s purchase, SDMA followed existing professional guidelines in researching this work of art. An expert in Colonial Latin American painting advised on the acquisition, and the dealer-provided provenance was reviewed before the acquisition took place. Later in 2002, while further researching the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden in preparation for its publication in a forthcoming collection catalogue, museum staff members discovered discrepancies in the provenance record on file. At that time, staff also wrote to the Special Cultural Center of the State of Hidalgo seeking photographic documentation. It was this correspondence generated by SDMA, and written on its own initiative, that evidently led the Mexican government to institute an inquiry about the painting through its established treaty protocols. Upon notification of the nature of this investigation in mid-October, SDMA immediately provided all known facts to both governments.

“Safeguarding national patrimony is one of the most critical and complex issues in the art world of our time,” states the Museum’s recently appointed executive director, Derrick Cartwright. “Theft of cultural property, irrespective of its monetary value, is a deeply troubling fact facing all museums today. Museums, other exhibiting institutions, cultural organizations, as well as the general public, have a stake in addressing this serious problem and we are prepared to do the right thing—both professionally and morally—in this instance.”

“When it comes to claims for restitution and preservation of the world’s cultural heritage, SDMA intends to be on the side of justice and integrity. The actions taken by this Museum’s board yesterday demonstrate this most clearly,” stated SDMA’s board president, Charles L Hellerich.

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