Museums and deaccessioning

For many, the idea of a museum selling works from its collection is unthinkable. Why not, actually? The deaccessioning of artworks by major museums has flooded a controversial issue.

Taddei Tondo, RA collection

The art world was shaken last week by news that the Royal Academy museum in London is contemplating selling its only Michelangelo, which has been in the Royal Collection since 1829. It is actually the only marble statue of Michelangelo in Great Britain, probably created in 1505. The relief, known as the Taddei Tondo, depicts Mary and Jesus together with John the Baptist, as a child. It’s nicknamed after the wealthy Italian cloth merchant Taddeo Taddei who commissioned the piece.

The idea to sell the piece came from a group of angry Royal Academicians, who would rather sell it than see museum staff laid off.
As are many other museums, the RA is also suffering financial hardship as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. It may reach a deficit of £8 million, and need to lay off 150 staff members.

The outcry against the sale is based on the definition of a museum as an institution that is responsible for preserving cultural assets. This is the basic assumption that encourages many collectors to donate their collections to museums, knowing that there, they will be preserved forever, even if they are not necessarily displayed. The role of the museum is to protect and preserve them for future generations.

There are many rules and regulations regarding selling artwork from museum collections – an action referred to as deaccessioning. Regulations vary, depending on the type of museum: whether public, private, charity, national or city-owned. The main principle is that proceeds from a deaccessioned work are used only to acquire other works of art.

In recent years there have been quite a few cases in which museums have encountered difficulties and contemplated ​​selling works from their collection as a solution. One of the most famous cases was in Detroit, a city that went bankrupt in 2013 – the largest urban bankruptcy in American history. Many creditors pressured the municipality to sell artwork from the Detroit Art Institute collection to pay off debts. The DIA is a city-owned museum so the lawsuit seemed to the creditors a sensible solution. But the court thought otherwise, and a year later, in late 2014, a legal and public solution to Detroit’s bankruptcy was found, and the collection survived.

In 2018, important works from the collection of the Berkshires Museum in West Massachusetts were sold. The sale, which took place at Sotheby’s, was met with loud but unsuccessful protests. In this case, the purpose of the sale was regular maintenance and not an upgrade of the collection.

Covid-19 has caused the association of museum directors in the U.S. to re-evaluate their deaccession policy. In order to help museums deal with the crises caused by the pandemic, the regulations have been relaxed till 2022, giving the green light to museums that need funds to maintain their operation. The Brooklyn museum immediately took advantage of the change in rules and  is putting 12 works up for auction at Christie’s this October — including paintings by Cranach, Courbet and Corot — to raise funds for the care of its collection.

The Baltimore museum has also just announced the upcoming sale of 3 blue chip paintings, that will add approx. 65 million USD to the already balanced budget. This looks like a strategic use of the relaxed rules to secure funds for future acquisitions and expanding programs.

The catalogue cover above is accompanied by a press release which describes the collection as legendary. The museum, on the other hand, is doing its best to reduce the importance of the items offered for sale in defence against the public criticism. 

In Israel we were also shocked to learn about the upcoming Sotheby’s sale of 190 pieces from the  Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem, private museum founded in 1974 and based on a collection of the Salomons family, a philanthropic family from Britain. In addition to their watch collection – one of the three rarest watch collections in the world – about 5,000 Islamic art items that make up the collection were purchased after being carefully selected by Professor Richard Ettinghausen, who was a great scholar of the art of Islam.

The museum is currently run and financially supported by the Herman de Stern Foundation. It isn’t in financial difficulties. According to the press release, the purpose of the sale is to ensure the long-term future of the museum as well as to expand educational programs that promote intercultural dialogue, which is the museum’s vision.

According to the museum, it was the foundation that decided to sell the items Since this is a private collection, not donated by collectors, with only 17% of its budget is received from the Ministry of Culture and the Jerusalem Municipality – there is no legal impediment to making the sale, which was even approved by the Israeli Antiquities Authority. The issue is moral, as it is with all the other examples given here. The moral problem concerns the fact that usually, in cases of selling works with the impressive provenance of a museum collection, only private collectors can afford to purchase them and thus, works that were in collections that could be visited and viewed disappear from the public eye.

Indeed, this is a very complex issue. On the one hand, a museum’s essence is to safeguard  and preserve cultural heritage through its collections. It’s supposed to be the final stop in the journey of a work of art. But on the other hand, 90% of the collections are stuck in warehouses anyway, far from the eyes of visitors and their sale may save the museum from closure in the worst case or enhance the visit experience in the mild case. Indeed a dilemma. Today, when museum budgets are low and prices of museum-quality art high, the main source for high quality art comes from donations. But collectors may choose not to donate to museums with a history of sales and thus, in effect, museums are shooting themselves in the foot by hurting future donations.

I wish the institutional support was such that deaccession would not be needed. 

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Larry taub

    Hi Debbie,
    I suppose you could think that deaccessioning art allow others including other museums the chance of owing art that was hoarded for years and not available for sale. You would hope that whoever purchased the work would eventually donate it to another institution. I imagine these works would be second level or duplicates or works that did not represent the goals of the museum.

  2. Fanny Strozenberg

    Bonsoir ma chère Debby,tu m’as manqué j’espère que toi et ta famille vont bien.Ca me choque un peu ces ventes des musée,je me pose la question si un donateur offre une belle œuvre à un musée,il serait d”accord de vendre pour nourrir le musée??? Moi pas.Je voudrais que mon œuvre puisse être admirée par le monde entier.

    1. Debby Luzia

      Dear Fanny you are right to be shocked and as a collector you should have the security that your donation will not be sold. I agree. We are all ok. Hope you are too. Bisous.

  3. Joan Lessing

    Much of what is deaccessioned is from storage, and rarely if ever seen. Many collectors buy as an investment. A possible solution would be that the buyer be obligated to loan the works back to the selling museum when they are needed for exhibition. Each museum has its own needs and goals. Why should a work worth millions sit in storage when the possible cash value could be used for educational purposes (Islamic Museum). The Berkshires Museum doesn’t need a permanent collection as much as it needs to mount exhibitions in up to date facilities. There are museums like the Brandeis gallery, which are a side product of the main institution. This is a gallery that should be devoted to education. We are not talking about iconic museums like the Frick, which obviously cannot sell off masterpieces. There is no one rule for all, except to determine the goal of the institution.

    1. Debby Luzia

      Hi Joan
      Thanks for your interesting perspective. If you would bequeath your art to a museum, would you like the idea it may be sold one day? Moreover, would you consider donating to a museum that has a history of deaccessioning art?

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