A piece of art stolen from Howard University’s collections decades ago will return to the historically Black Washington, D.C., university, a judge ruled last month.
The artwork, a drawing of a Black Madonna figure titled Centralia Madonna, is by the renowned Black artist Charles White. It was acquired by Howard in 1947 after the artist finished a residency there but was reported missing in 1976. The university has long claimed it was stolen.
The drawing resurfaced in 2020, when the current owners, an elderly North Carolina couple, decided to put the piece up for auction. They consigned it with Sotheby’s Auction House, where it was valued at between $300,000 and $500,000. The couple said they were given the drawing as a gift in the early 1970s.
The auction house reached out to Howard about it, and the university sued the couple, claiming rightful ownership.
The case concluded on Oct. 20, when a federal judge in the Southern District of New York rejected the defense’s argument that Howard should have known earlier where the art had ended up. The judge did not find evidence that the couple knew it was stolen; the friend they claim gifted it to them has since passed away.
Centralia Madonna will return to the Howard University Art Gallery this fall.
“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,” a university spokesperson wrote in a statement after the decision.