In 2006, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Foundation received the gift of six medieval wooden sculptures - fragments from the Altarpiece of the Virgin from the church of Boussu- lez-Mons (Belgium). The group had been acquired from the art trade that same year. The fragments and other statuettes from the Schoufour-Martin Collection were exhibited in the museum from 16 February to 25 May 2008. Accompanying the exhibition was the catalogue Uit het goede hout gesneden.
In the course of the exhibition the museum was told that the sculptures had been stolen from the church of Boussu-lez-Mons in 1914. Although the theft was outside the statute of limitations the museum decided to launch an inquiry and began discussions with the Municipality of Boussu on the possible return of the objects. After careful consideration it was decided to give the sculptures to the church on permanent loan, provided steps were taken to optimise the climate control and security arrangements in the chapel where they would go on display.
The Altarpiece of the Virgin for the church of Boussu-lez-Mons must have been made around 1520 in the southern Netherlands, probably Brussels. The group is made of oak and must originally have been polychromed. Almost all the groups were broken in two at some point, and have been repaired. The altarpiece consists of three main groups.
In the centre was The death of the Virgin, with The Assumption and The Coronation of the Virgin above it. It was flanked on the left by The Circumcision and on the right by The Nativity. The sculpture group with the six fragments originally stood in front of the main scenes.
It is not just the six fragments from the museum’s collection that are missing from the altarpiece. Seven groups were also stolen from the hollow frame in 1971 and 1981, and the Christ Child from The Adoration of the Shepherds (The Nativity) has also disappeared.
The provenance of the sculpture group can be traced back to 1873. Prior to the theft in 1914 it was part of the altarpiece installed in front of a bricked- up window in the Church of St Géry in Boussu-lez- Mons in Hainaut province. On 31 July 1915 two men appeared in court in Mons (Appendix 2) [[M2]] charged with the theft on the night of 3-4 December 1914 of the lower part of a ‘Gothic altarpiece belonging to the Church of St Géry’. The sum of 50 francs was also missing from the church. In addition to the accusation of theft or complicity in theft the suspects were charged with having hidden the sculptures in Jemappes or elsewhere in Belgium in the course of December 1914. Their sentence was a six-month prison term and a fine of 196 francs and 79 centimes.
The whereabouts of the sculpture group remained unknown until 1961, when it featured in the exhibition Dutch Primitives from Dutch Private Collections in the Singer Museum in Laren, where it was stated that it came from the collection of the heirs of R. Meurs of Hilversum.
In 1976 the sculpture group was with the antique dealer G.M.J. (Gerard) Lommen in Maastricht. This came to the attention of the Municipality of Boussu, which asked him to consider relinquishing the sculptures so that they could be reunited with the altarpiece. It emerges from an article in the December 1976 issue of the journal De antiquair that he turned the request down. It is stated in the same article that the assistant priest [[M4]] sold the group to a Swedish engineer because money was needed to refurbish the church. Queen Astrid of Belgium apparently did all she could to get the sculptures returned, and the author appealed for financial support from benefactors to bring this about. Lommen was prepared to sell them to Boussu, but the town could not afford the price. He still had the sculptures in 1978, when he put them up for sale at the 12th Dutch Art and Antiques Fair in Breda. The group was eventually acquired in 2006 by the collector Jacques Schoufour, who bought it in good faith on the art market. The following year he donated the Schoufour-Martin sculpture collection to Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, which exhibited and published it in 2008.
Marieke van Vlierden, with a contribution from Jeroen Giltaij,Uit het goede hout gesneden. Middeleeuwse beelden uit de collectie Schoufour-Martin (Boijmans Studies series), Rotterdam 2008 (ISBN 978-90-6918-227-8).
The altarpiece fragments are described and illustrated on pp. 169-171, cat. no. 51. [PDF, 221MB]
Translation: Michael Hoyle