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Market Downturn Means Buying Opportunities for Museums

The recession has presented some museums with a rare opportunity to acquire important works of art at lower prices.

NEW YORK—The recession has presented some museums with a rare opportunity to acquire important works of art at lower prices.

Elizabeth Kornhauser, chief curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Conn., credited the recession with helping to bring Slightly Open Clam Shell, 1926, a pastel on paper by Georgia O’Keeffe, into the collection last spring. Kornhauser told ARTnewsletter she is in the process of preparing a major show of American works on paper that will start touring next February.

“I had been looking for several years for a major O’Keeffe,” she said, but at the height of the market, nothing was available or affordable. The pastel became available because a private collector was motivated to sell, Kornhauser said, and since prices have dropped, “this work could work within our acquisitions budget.” She added that the price the Atheneum paid is being kept confidential.

“Yes, there are opportunities for museums to acquire more, and I’m living it right now,” Louis Grachos, director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y., said. Last year the museum raised more than $67 million in acquisition funds from the sale of deaccessioned items. “For those of us with resources,” he said, “we are finding that prices are more reasonable than they were just 14 months ago, and that there is more material available right now.”

Grachos said that the museum has been approached with greater frequency by dealers and auction houses, “wanting to find out what we’re looking for—or, in the case of the auction houses, they know if we are looking for works by a particular artist and tell when things are coming up at sales.” He declined to give specifics, as several recent acquisitions have not yet been announced.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art deputy director Nancy Thomas said that “we have seen evidence of a reduction in the sales prices of works of art in recent months, and we have made several purchases at a lower than expected price.” (She also declined to provide specifics because the acquisitions are not yet public.) She told ARTnewsletter that despite lower prices, however, LACMA officials “have not seen a flood of newly available works on the market.”

While some museum curators and directors are fielding calls from gallery owners and auctioneers, some also have been telephoning dealers and auction houses, looking to buy. “I’m returning a lot of phone calls, maybe double or triple the number of just a year ago,” said Allison Whiting, senior vice-president and director of museum services at Christie’s, adding that “a number of museums are stepping up, feeling that they could buy things.”

These museums have seen their acquisition funds drop with the stock market and the overall economy, Whiting said, “but they still have money and that money goes farther now.”

Pros and Cons of Weaker Market

The economy is proving to be a mixed blessing for museums, said Neal Benezra, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: “On the one hand, prices are lower and more negotiable, and there are fewer buyers so there is less competition. On the other hand, fewer great works are coming to the secondary market since the pace of sales has slowed significantly. On balance, I would say that museums and all serious collectors are in a better position, because a market like this benefits careful shoppers who are willing to take their time and search out the best works.”

It is not only museum officials who have taken a more aggressive stance in the art market; collectors are doing so as well. Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, noted that between 80 and 90 percent of all museum accessions come as gifts from collectors, and told ARTnewsletter that a large part of his strategy is to “encourage collectors in our area to buy works we’re interested in.” He added that many of these collectors are “open and receptive to the idea.” The Indianapolis museum has also made some opportunistic purchases: Anderson cited a painting by the 18th-century Japanese artist Hakuin Ekaku that Asian-art curator Jim Robinson purchased in Japan as an example of an acquisition made because “the owners were looking to sell.”

In May, the Kemper Museum of Contem­porary Art, Kansas City, Mo., bought a Helen Frankenthaler painting, Warming Trend, 2002, for “more than a million dollars,” according to Ann Freedman, director of Knoedler & Co., New York, which sold it to the museum. That followed the Kemper’s purchase last year, also from Knoedler, of Jules Olitski’s painting Prince Petutsky Pleasures, 1962, for “under $500,000.”

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