Amid economic fallout resulting from the pandemic, many institutions are selling works from their holdings in order to raise capital for collection care. The practice, known as deaccessioning, has been undertaken in recent weeks by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, Newfields in Indianapolis, and mostly notably, the Baltimore Museum of Art, whose controversial plan to sell $65 million in art have become the subject of national news.
There are no official laws guiding deaccessions in the United States, but most museum officials adhere to guidelines set in place by industry groups like the Association of Art Museum Directors, which has recently relaxed its rules in order to alleviate the economic strain of the pandemic on institutions. Yet even though the AAMD’s leadership has made it clear that deaccessioning could be necessary under certain circumstances, some continue to say the practice is unethical and wrong.
Deaccessioning is hardly new in the art world, however, and neither are the debates surrounding it. Below, a look back at some of the most notable deaccessioning plans from the past five decades.
1970s: Private Sales, Public Scrutiny
In 1967, a donation of 200 works from the estate of Adelaide Milton de Groot came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Within a few years, however, some of them were headed to sale, in what would become one of the first major deaccessioning controversies in recent history.
Among the works given by de Groot to the Met was Henri Rousseau’s The Tropics, which was sold at Marlborough Galleries alongside works by Pierre Bonnard, Juan Gris, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Rousseau painting and van Gogh’s The Olive Pickers sold for an estimated $1.5 million. The museum used the funds gained from those sales to acquire another work: a Velázquez portrait of his assistant Juan de Pareja, which the Met acquired via dealer Wildenstein & Co. from a Christie’s London sale for $5.6 million in 1971.
Today, deaccessioning is done often, but at the time, it was not widely talked about, and the museum’s selling-off of works was met with swift disapproval. The Met and its leadership were widely criticized, and the state attorney general investigated whether or not the museum violated de Groot’s will. In the end, that investigation found that the Met had not been transparent enough about the deaccessioning process.
In 1978, the Brooklyn Museum became the next major U.S. institution to grab headlines over the sale of works from its collection. The museum’s former assistant director, Michael Kan, was sued by the New York attorney general, who alleged that his transactions with art dealers James Economos, Douglas Ewing, and Robert Taylor went against protocols. Kan stood accused of selling $750,000 worth of “primitive” art from the museum’s permanent holdings. In 1983, he reached a settlement with the AGO. “If there is anything positive that has come out of this case,” Kan told the New York Times, “it is that museums now have a code of ethics and bylaws.”
1980s–1990s: The Market Expands—and Museums Follow
As the market expanded during the ’80s, museums went even bigger with their deaccessioning efforts, taking advantage of the high prices being achieved at auction by Impressionist and modern artworks. In 1989, the Museum of Modern Art’s director, Richard Oldenburg, announced that the institution had acquired Vincent van Gogh’s 1888–89 portrait of postman Joseph Roulin from a Swiss private collection. To obtain the work, however, it had to part ways with seven pieces. MoMA had sold a Giorgio de Chirico, a Piet Mondrian, and a Pablo Picasso at Sotheby’s New York in November that year, together collecting $13.6 million, and works by Claude Monet, Wassily Kandinsky, Renoir, and Picasso were traded privately by Swiss dealers Thomas Ammann and Ernst Beyeler. The private sale prices were not disclosed.
One year later, in 1990, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens led the sale of three works of art from the foundation’s esteemed collection: Kandinsky’s Fugue (1914), Modigliani’s Boy in Blue Jacket (1916) and Marc Chagall’s Birthday (1923), all of which were auctioned at Sotheby’s New York that May. The sale brought in $47 million for the museum’s endowment fund.
2000s: The Public Condemns Deaccessioning
By the early 2000s, high-profile deaccessions began piquing public interest. In May 2004, MoMA sold nine works of art amounting to $25.7 million at Christie’s, including Giorgio de Chirico’s Il grande metafisico (1917), once owned by Pennsylvania art collector Albert Barnes, which setting a record for the artist at $7.2 million during the auction house’s impressionist and modern art evening sale; Rene Magritte’s L’éternité (1935), gifted to the museum by the artist’s lawyer and confidant Harry Torczyner in 1972, sold for $1.2 million. The sale was an example of the kind of top-tier works that would be headed out of museum holdings and straight to the auction block that decade.
In 2005, the New York Public Library revealed plans to sell Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849). Controversially, the Hudson River School masterpiece went not to a museum, but to a private collector: Walmart heiress and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art founder Alice Walton, who bought it for $35 million. The sale was made through a private “sealed bid” auction at Sotheby’s, and Walton beat a joint bid from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to acquire the work. Fifteen other works were also sold by the library to bolster its endowment.
The sales kept coming in the years that followed. In 2007, Buffalo’s Albright-Knox museum sold $18 million worth of antiquities from its collection at Sotheby’s. In 2008, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts worked to raise $68 million to purchase a Thomas Eakins painting, The Gross Clinic, from Thomas Jefferson University, which planned to sell the work to the National Gallery of Art and Crystal Bridges. To help keep the iconic work in the city, the PMA and PAFA launched the fundraising campaign that was partially supported by the PMA’s sale of Eakins’s Cowboy Singing to the Denver Art Museum and the Phillip Anschutz Collection; two more oil sketches went solely to the Denver Art Museum. And in 2011, the Art Institute of Chicago sold two Pablo Picassos, a Henri Matisse, and a Georges Braque at Christie’s London for $16.1 million, to raise funds to acquire a work by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich.
Late 2000s–2010s: The AAMD Steps In
Some of these deaccessioning plans announced in the 2000s were more controversial than others, though none proved as contentious as one undertaken in 2008 by the National Academy Museum in New York, which revealed that it would sell two Hudson River School paintings: Frederic Edwin Church’s Scene on the Magdalene (1854) and Sanford Robinson Gifford’s Mount Mansfield, Vermont (1859). They were sold privately in a deal that generated $13.5 million. In a preview of things to come, the National Academy’s sale was condemned by the AAMD, and it wasn’t until 2018 that the sanctions placed against the museum were lifted.
In 2014, the AAMD sanctioned two more institutions for their deaccessioning efforts. Virginia’s Randolph College Maier Museum of Art had plans to sell a $25.5 million George Bellows painting titled Men of the Docks (1912) to the National Gallery of Art in London to bolster the school’s endowment fund. (Previously, the museum had sold Rufino Tamayo’s Troubadour in 2008 at Christies for $7.2 million, setting a record for the artist.) The AAMD found that to be in violation of its guidelines, as was the Delaware Museum of Art’s plans to sell William Holman Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelite picture Isabella and the Pot of Basil for $4.25 million to pay off $19.8 million in debt related to an expansion. “With this sale, the museum is treating its works from its collection as disposable assets, rather than irreplaceable cultural heritage that it holds in trust for people now and in the future,” the AAMD said of the Delaware Museum plan.
It is rare for the AAMD to sanction museums, but when the group does, the effects can prove disastrous. The National Academy reportedly faced difficulties mounting exhibitions and obtaining loans, and the Delaware Museum has likewise endured industry disapproval because of the sanctions. But some museums have deaccessioned art knowing full well that sanctions were a possibility—and gone through with it anyway.
In 2018, Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950) was at the center of the Berkshire Museum’s controversial plan to sell 40 artworks from its permanent collection to raise $55 million for renovations and to boost its endowment. It drew an investigation from the the state attorney general, as well as sanctions from the AAMD. The sale of Shuffleton’s Barbershop and 39 other works generated around $42 million at Sotheby’s; Los Angeles’s soon-to-open Lucas Museum of Narrative Art acquired the Rockwell.
A Berkshire Museum spokeswoman told the New York Times, “The possibility of sanctions was carefully considered by the board when deciding whether to deaccession any works to secure and sustain the museum’s future. We determined then and strongly believe now that to protect our most important asset—the museum’s open doors—it was necessary.”
Early 2010s–Present: Selling to Diversify and Preserve
There are still cases of plain old deaccessions without many frills—MoMA sold a nine-foot-long Léger in 2017 for $6 million at Art Basel, and the City of Denver sold $114 million in Clyfford Still paintings to support a museum devoted in the artist in Colorado in 2011. But selling art from museum collections still sometimes arouses suspicion and controversy.
Occasionally, legal settlements have blocked sales altogether. In 2009, Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, announced plans to close its Rose Art Museum and liquidate its $350 million collection. A 2011 legal settlement barred the school from selling the 7,500-item collection, which includes works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Willem de Kooning. Initiatives that involve selling art by white males to diversify collections have generated greater furor than these settlements, however.
The Baltimore Museum of Art became a pioneer in that respect when, in 2018, director Christopher Bedford said it would sell works by Andy Warhol, Franz Kline, Jules Olitski, and Kenneth Noland at Sotheby’s for $7.9 million. The money earned through the sales would be used to acquire work by women and nonwhite artists who had been historically underrepresented at the institution. In the end, the museum used the funds to buy works by Amy Sherald, Wangechi Mutu, Jack Whitten, and more. “You open up the possibility that you can do it again and in different areas,” Bedford told ARTnews of the deaccessioning in 2020.
Other institutions have followed Bedford’s model. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art sold a painting by Mark Rothko in 2019 for $50.1 million at Sotheby’s. The museum used the proceeds to acquire works by Alma Thomas, Lygia Clark, and Mickalene Thomas, among others. And this year, citing a similar agenda, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, sold a Jackson Pollock for $13 million at Christie’s with the hope of diversifying its collection.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to the AAMD relaxing its guidelines about deaccessioning, causing museums like the Brooklyn Museum and the Palm Springs Art Museum in California to sell major works at auction. No deaccessioning plan has proven more provocative in 2020 than the Baltimore Museum’s latest one, which involves selling a Warhol, a Brice Marden, and Still through Sotheby’s, in an effort intended to raise $65 million that will go toward efforts focused around the collection and the salaries of some who care for it.
The backlash against the museum is ongoing. Eleven former trustees have signed an open letter calling for an investigation by the Maryland attorney general, two board members have resigned, and two former chairmen have rescinded pledged gifts. But leadership at the museum has stuck to its guns, saying that the plan would involve parting with the past to move forward into the future. Curators Asma Naeem and Katy Seigel wrote in an op-ed published by the Art Newspaper, “Museums are not mausoleums or treasure houses, they are living organisms, oriented to the present as well as the past, and that is where the fundamental disagreement lies.”