In 1976, Charles White’s Centralia Madonna disappeared from Howard University’s collection amidst the university’s accusations of theft. After 50 years, Inside Higher Ed reports that the piece will be returned to the HBCU.
Valued at up to $500,000, the work of art is a graphite drawing depicting a pensive black Madonna. It was completed by Charles White during his residency at the university and became a part of the university’s collection in 1947. White is renowned for his soulful depictions of black Americans, and his work has been exhibited in some of the most prestigious museums in the country since his death in 1979, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
After its mysterious disappearance, the Centralia Madonna was rediscovered in 2020 after it was placed up for auction through Soetheby’s. The auction house contacted the university regarding the piece’s whereabouts and ownership. Larry and Virginia Border, the couple in possession of the piece, claimed that it had been gifted to them in the 1970s and stated that they were unaware that the painting had been stolen. Despite these claims, the university brought a lawsuit against the couple for possession of the drawing. While a judge ultimately ruled in favor of the college, ordering that the piece be returned to Howard’s campus, the court did not find that the Borders were aware that the work was stolen or that it belonged to Howard University’s collection.
Howard University addressed the historic return in a statement, saying: “The court’s decision allows Centralia Madonna to be displayed on Howard’s campus, where it will be viewed, enjoyed, and studied by Howard students, faculty, alumni, and visiting scholars for years to come.”