New York Times
October 26, 2005
Museums Set to Sell Art, and Some Experts Cringe
By CAROL VOGEL
Undaunted by the tempest over the New York Public Library's sale of a prized painting, arts institutions across the country are cleaning out their closets for auctions starting next week, stirring fresh unease among art historians and curators.
Artworks going on the block include paintings by Picasso, Modigliani and Chagall, and rare photographs by masters like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston. In December, the public library is moving ahead with the sale of two portraits of George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart, and 16 other paintings.
When Asher B. Durand's "Kindred Spirits," a classic of the Hudson River School, went to a Wal-Mart heiress in a sealed-bid auction last May for a reported sum of about $35 million, critics charged that the public library was jettisoning part of the city's cultural patrimony. The library countered that it was desperate to shore up its endowment fund.
Now, the scale of such selling - by institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art - is renewing debate. "History will make a fool of these museums," said Robert Rosenblum, an art historian and a curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, who has sometimes opposed sales by his own institution. "It always happens. Often the things that are sold are based on inherited prejudices that will be overturned in the future."
Defenders describe such sales as part of a natural process of renewal; several museums selling this season say their goal is solely to raise money for other acquisitions. Equally important, museum directors point out, many of the works being sold have languished in storerooms for decades because exhibition space is limited, or because they are less significant than other examples by the same artist. But critics like Mr. Rosenblum say the museums risk making the wrong guesses about what works will seem important decades from now. And some worry that such decisions reflect the influence of an impatient new generation of financially astute trustees who fail to grasp the role that museums play as cultural guardians.
Seymour R. Slive, the former director of the Harvard University Art Museums and a Harvard professor emeritus, said museums should be far more cautious about selling.
"Tastes change," he said. "Two generations ago, pre-Raphaelite paintings were not in vogue. Had museums gotten rid of them, it would have been a major error." Mr. Slive also faults the library for selling its paintings. "It shouldn't part with their legacy," he said. "The library should keep its riches."
The library's board sees it differently. "Ours was a decision to get out of the picture business," said Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library. "It was not a decision taken cavalierly, nor was it market-driven. Paintings are simply not part of our mission."
John Elderfield, the Museum of Modern Art's chief curator of painting and sculpture, said he believed that the museum's planned sale at Christie's next month - 13 works by artists like Picasso, Henry Moore, Kees van Dongen and Théo van Rysselberghe - was a wise move.
"It's only healthy," he said. "When the collection was initially developed, Conger Goodyear, the museum's first president, said it would have the same permanence as a river - we know what direction it is going in, but it has to be fluid. That's how we operate."
He cited an 1892 painting by van Rysselberghe, a Pointillist image of a harbor on the French Mediterranean that Christie's estimates will fetch $1.5 million to $2 million.
"The van Rysselberghe is very good, but that early part of our collection we don't wish to develop,"
Before something goes to auction, he and his team of curators all have to agree, he added. "If there's any doubt, we leave it alone," he said. There were no objections to selling either work. Edward H. Able, president and chief executive of the American Association of Museums in Washington, said he supported deaccessioning as long as the proceeds were used to buy other works of art, not pay for operating costs. "It's encouraged and endorsed," he said in a telephone interview, adding, "We would like these items to go to other museums, but that's not always possible."
Mr. Able said he had noticed that sales of museum works seem to come in cycles. First, he said, a strong market works in the institutions' favor. "There's a pent-up need for this," he said. He also noted a boom in museum expansions and renovations across the country. "Many museums are either in the middle of building projects or have just completed them," he said, "and are therefore assessing their collections."
Auction house executives, meanwhile, point out that museums' stock market investments have not brought the kind of returns needed for acquisitions of first-rate works of art, whose prices have soared in recent years. Investment-savvy trustees at such museums are encouraging directors and curators to sell at what is perceived as a peak for the art market.
James Cuno, director of the Chicago Art Institute, said its decision to sell a Chagall and a Renoir at Sotheby's next week came during a review of its holdings in anticipation of a catalog of its permanent collection. "These sales are undertaken with careful scrutiny," he said.
A far bigger seller is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As it gears up for the expansion, reorganization and reinstallation of its collection in 2007, it is auctioning 43 works at Sotheby's, which are expected to fetch $10.4 million to $15.4 million. Among the most valuable is a Modigliani portrait of the Spanish landscape painter Manuel Humbert, estimated to bring $4 million to $6 million. It's the biggest sale of works by the museum since the early 1980's. "We've taken a pretty aggressive look at the collection, something we don't do that often," said Nancy Thomas, the museum's deputy director. "It's more about the collection and the opportunity to improve it than it is about the market."
Stephanie Barron, the museum's chief curator of modern art, said the decision to sell the Modigliani was the hardest. But since the museum has two other portraits by that artist that it considers superior, she said, "it seemed like a luxury to have all three."
Yet Mr. Slive, the curator behind an exhibition of works by Jacob van Ruisdael that opened on Sunday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, pointed out that the museum owned nine works by van Ruisdael.
"Each one of these shows a phase of the artist's career," he said. "Were they to sell any one of them would be to denude the collection. It would be a major confusion."
In many cases, institutions are selling to pay for an acquisition. The Modern, for instance, is trying to to help cover its purchase of "Rebus," the 1955 painting by Robert Rauschenberg that it bought for about $30 million in June with the help of its former chairman, Ronald S. Lauder, and his wife, Jo Carole.
The Met is also selling to cover a big acquisition. In March it bought more than 8,500 photographs from the Gilman Paper Company Collection - a part-gift, part-purchase arrangement - that included many duplicate images of works the museum already owned. Those duplicates will be sold at Sotheby's in February in a sale that the house projects will raise $4 million to $6 million.
"When you acquire a collection of this size, it is bound to have redundancies," said Philippe de Montebello, the Met's director. In addition to the photographs, the museum is also selling three small old master paintings at Sotheby's next month in London and in January in New York. And every year it sells a few works from different departments.
"Deaccessioning has much to do with liberating storerooms - and collections management," Mr. de Montebello said. "Having things we never show costs money to keep."
Asked if the Met chose to hold its photography sale this season to ride the crest of the rising market, he replied with a no, adding, "Were it not such an 'opportune' moment, we would not have had to spend so much money to get the collection in the first place."