5 Important Works of Art Currently Being Sold by Museums

Public museums are selling art to pay staff salaries or carry out long-term plans made more difficult to achieve due to a dramatic decrease in revenue.

Clyfford Still, 1957-G, 1957 (left) and David Hockney, Sir David Webster, 1971 (right). © City & County of Denver, Courtesy Clyfford Still Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2020

Aide has flowed from Washington to many corners of the American economy except, meaningfully, to the arts. Museums are in a particularly tough spot since they (mostly) require people to gather indoors in environments with strictly controlled airflow.

And, as the economy remains unstable following the pandemic’s slowdown, many institutions are looking to deaccession as a means for everything from paying staff to achieving strategic goals.

Deaccession (or, selling paintings from an established collection) is a difficult topic in the museum world. Obviously, many museums hold untold fortunes worth of art in their collection. But, the entire point of their existence is to hold those works in trust for the benefit of scholars and the public at large. Selling them off to meet short-term financial needs is widely regarded to defeat the point of even having a collection. And it gets even more dicey when those works were gifts to the museum from collectors or the artists themselves.

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There’s no established body of law on deaccessions in the United States, unlike in other countries like the United Kingdom, so museum boards and officials abide by the strict guidelines offered by organizations like the American Alliance of Museums or the Association of Art Museum Directors. Part of the recent rush toward deaccession has been, in fact, due to the AAMD temporarily relaxing deaccession rules starting this April. Previously, deaccession proceeds could only go toward purchasing new art, while AAMD members can now use such funds “for general operations, including necessary expenses such as staff compensation and benefits.”

While not every museum is selling work from its collection, and not every institution with an art collection is a member of AAM or AAMD and bound by those rules, there has been a clear and notable uptick in such sales within the last few months. Read on to see a few of the major artworks recently or soon-to-be up for sale, and why.

Clyfford Still, 1957-G, 1957 © City & County of Denver, Courtesy Clyfford Still Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1957-G by Clyfford Still from Baltimore Museum of Art

Last week, the Baltimore Museum of Art declared it would sell three multi-million dollar paintings to finance funds for increasing wages for underpaid staff, diversity and equity initiatives, acquisitions, and more. One, a Warhol, will likely go in a private sale while the other two, a Brice Marden and Clyfford Still, are slated to for auction with Sotheby’s. The Still, 1957-G estimated to sell for $10 million to $15 million, presents a particularly interesting case since it is the only work by him in the BMA collection and was a gift from the artist, who was born in Maryland. This raises one of the more difficult components of deaccessioning. Will artists be hesitant to give knowing their work may be leveraged for some unforeseen end? While the museum insists the move, while difficult, is for the greater good, the full consequences are not known.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Lucretia, 1533. CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2020

Lucretia by Lucas Cranach the Elder from Brooklyn Museum

The Brooklyn Museum made waves in the art world when they announced that twelves works from their collection would go under hammer with Christie’s on October 15. The works are valued starting at $30,000 for a painting by Jehan-Georges Vibert up to $1.8 million for Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Lucretia. The sale is aimed at laying the groundwork for a $40 million fund that will earn about $2 million per year and go toward caring for the collection and some salaries of those involved in that care.

George Earl Ortman, Start, 1971. ndianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.

Start by George Earl Ortman from Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields

One particularly salient reason to deaccession is when the artwork in question is great, but the museum has something that’s just plain better from the same artist. Such is the case with the sculpture Start from George Earl Ortman. The artist was a major presence in American art during the ’60s and ’70s whose work resonated with milieus associated with prevailing Minimalism and Pop. While Start is emblematic of Ortman’s fascination with geometric abstraction and forms playing off brands and corporate architecture, the museum hasn’t exhibited it in more than twenty years because they have a more significant Ortman, M, which does more with these very ideas. As such, Start was recently marked for deaccession along with scores of other objects and will likely be sold at auction with proceeds benefiting the museum’s art acquisitions fund.

David Hockney, Sir David Webster, 1971. CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2020

Portrait of Sir David Webster by David Hockney at Royal Opera House and Taddei Tondo by Michelangelo from the Royal Academy

Deaccessions are, likewise, a hot topic across the pond. David Hockney’s Portrait of Sir David Webster at the Royal Opera House will be sold by Christie’s in London on October 22 for upwards of $23 million to bring the cash-strapped charity some liquidity. Sir David Webster headed the Royal Opera House for decades in the middle of last century and its current head, Alex Beard, states that the sale is a “vital part” of their recovery from “the biggest crisis in our history.” The Royal Academy, another charity, may sell of its sole Michelangelo, the Taddei Tondo. If sold, this work––the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in Britain––is expected to net hundreds of millions of dollars that could protect some 150 jobs. While charities are not bound by the same deaccession laws in the United Kingdom as museums, they do adhere to charity laws that command they act in the best interest of their collections and the public.

Jackson Pollock, Red Composition, 1946. CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2020

Red Composition by Jackson Pollock from the Everson Museum

Unlike the works listed above, Red Composition is being sold solely to increase the diversity of the Everson’s collection. The Pollock sold to an anonymous buyer for $12 million on October 6, matching its low estimate, and the funds are slated to buy new work beginning sometime next year. Diversifying collections has been a common theme for deaccessions in recent years, long before the pandemic impacted budgets. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for instance, sold a painting by Mark Rothko in 2019 to the tune of $50 million for the same reason. And no wonder, given that museum collections on average in this country are made up of work by artists who are 85 percent white and 87 percent male. The sale has been criticized and lauded in seemingly equal measure, and illustrates that this topic will for the time being remain a controversial and necessary aspect of the art market.

5 Important Works of Art Currently Being Sold by Museums