Selling Off: An American Museum’s Treasures Go To Auction

For the last few months, a BIG controversy going on in the art and museum world has been the decision of the Berkshire Museum, located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to sell off 40 of the objects in its collection, including paintings by some of America’s most important artists. That decision has incurred the wrath of art experts and museum executives around the world, and not without consequence to the museum. At the same time however, the upcoming sale of the Berkshire’s art treasures will give other institutions an excellent opportunity to pick up some major works of art, which in some cases have never appeared on the market before.

Earlier this summer the Berkshire announced that, after a two-year period of soul-searching, it will shift its curatorial focus in order to survive as an institution. To do so, it would have to sell off a significant number of works of art in its collection. It wants to build up its endowment, renovate its facilities, pay the bills, and change from a more traditional, catch-all small museum to one focused on the promotion of science and community activities. You can read more about that process by following this link.

The Berkshire’s decision was condemned by art and museum experts around the world, but more importantly earned the ire of both the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), both of which provide professional accreditation to the Berkshire, as well as to hundreds of other American museums. Sale of a work of art in a museum’s collection – known in the trade as “deaccession” – in order to purchase another work of art is, while rarely a good thing, a reality for many institutions; the sale of a work of art to fund other purposes however, may be considered a professional ethical violation by the AAM and AAMD.

In an excoriating joint press release released in July, which you can read in full here, the two professional bodies condemned the Berkshire’s decision to deaccession its art:

Selling from the collection for purposes such as capital projects or operating funds not only diminishes the core of works available to the public, it erodes the future fundraising ability of museums nationwide. Such a sale sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn’t needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls. That cuts to the heart not only of the Berkshire Museum, but every museum in the United States.

About 6 weeks later, the Berkshire announced that, by mutual agreement, it was withdrawing from affiliation with the Smithsonian. As the reader probably knows, the Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum organization in the world. It not only runs nearly two dozen museums and research centers of its own, but it maintains affiliate relationships with well over 200 museums around the country. These arrangements allow smaller museums to have access to Smithsonian curatorial expertise, scientific research, lending privileges for exhibitions, and so on. Given the difficulty and indeed the prestige involved in becoming a Smithsonian affiliate institution, abandoning that relationship is not something to be taken lightly – but there you are.

I’m not going to weigh in on the deaccession controversy here, other than to say that selling major works of art from your collection, so that you can have a place to teach local kids how graffiti is cool, with the result that they grow into anti-social, juvenile delinquents inordinately impressed by their own cleverness, is a stupid idea.

Among the works of art scheduled to go on the auction block at Sotheby’s this fall are two major paintings by Norman Rockwell, which the artist personally donated to the museum during his lifetime, and whose sale has infuriated the Rockwell family. The earlier work of the two, “Blacksmith’s Boy” (1940) is rather massive, at almost 6 feet long, but that should just fit over your sofa, if you’ve got $7-10 million sitting around.

Rock2

The later Rockwell painting, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop”, is a compositional tour de force of complex angles, surfaces, and lighting effects, a truly major work by America’s foremost illustrator of the 20th century, which entirely justifies its $20-30 million dollar auction estimate.

Rock1

Other paintings up for sale include works by Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Edwin Church, and George Inness, arguably the three most important American landscape painters of the 19th century. There is also a prime example of one of Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s (great-uncle of my friend and new media gadfly Neal Dewing) classic Tonalist interiors populated by languid ladies of leisure.

Dewing

And there is a rare, large religious work depicting the prophet Daniel interpreting the handwriting on the wall for King Belshazzar by the 18th century American academic and historical painter, Benjamin West.

West

Also on offer are portraits by Charles Wilson Peale and his son Rembrandt Peale. The Peales, as you may know, were America’s most famous family of artists during the Revolutionary and Federal periods, who painted iconic portraits of everyone from Washington and Jefferson to Lewis and Clark. The Berkshire is selling off its portrait of General Forman, by Peale the father, and General Washington, by Peale the son.

PealePere

In addition to the forgoing there are also sculptures by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Alexander Calder, two of the most prominent American sculptors of the early and mid-20th century, respectively. Continental works include paintings by William Bougereau, Raoul Dufy, Pieter de Hooch, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edouard Vuillard, and others. There are even a few Chinese antiquities, including a massive, 10-panelled lacquered screen from the late 17th century Qing Dynasty.

Not every piece heading to the Berkshire auction is by a major household name in art history, of course. Still, every one that I’ve seen listed for sale is certainly museum-worthy. It’s a pity that the collection could not have been preserved, and given to a museum on better financial and philosophical footing. But in the end, whether purchased by other museums or acquired by collectors who later donate their collections to museums, these works may end up being better-known and more widely seen, once they leave the institution where they are currently housed.

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Finding Fakes: New Museum Confronts Old Problem Head-On

Collecting antiquities is fraught with peril, and not just if you are Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. With advances in technology and scholarship, more and more museums and collectors have discovered that some of the prize possessions in their display cabinets are not what they appear to be. Although this kind of bad news is often swept under the rug rather quietly, by institutions or individuals who do not wish to damage their prestige, I want to share an interesting example of how one American museum recently handled this situation in just the right way.

San Francisco’s Mexican Museum was founded in the 1970’s, and over the past 40 years it has amassed a collection of over 16,000 objects, dating from Prehistory to the present-day. For most of its existence the Museum has been somewhat nomadic, lacking a permanent home and with its holdings scattered in warehouses around the city. Beginning in 2019 however, a new high-rise tower currently under construction in the SoMa district of the city will house the Museum on four of its floors.

In 2012, the Museum won a coveted Affiliate Museum status with the Smithsonian Institution, a relationship which allows it to draw upon the resources and expertise of the Smithsonian in areas such as exhibition planning and object conservation. As part of its due diligence in granting affiliate status, the Smithsonian required testing and authentication of the objects in the Museum’s collection. The oldest part of that collection includes a large number of Pre-Columbian artifacts, i.e. objects that were created by native peoples before the arrival of Columbus.

The analysis of these objects has just been completed by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History and, unfortunately, it turns out that a significant portion of the Museum’s holdings – such as the pot pictured below – are either fakes, or cannot be authenticated“According to the report, only 83 of 2,000 artifacts from the pre-Hispanic, or pre-Columbian, era could be certified as museum-quality by an independent team of museum curators who came from Mexico City to conduct the test. The other 1,917 are considered “decorative,” and will probably be given to schools or smaller museums before the museum moves from its temporary Fort Mason site to a permanent home…”

As an aside, I find it somewhat curious that a “Mexican” museum would be housing (alleged) Inca artefacts. The Inca Empire, even at its fullest extent, did not reach anywhere near Mexico, nor did the peoples of present-day Mexico and Peru share a common language, culture, or religion. It’s a bit like putting objects from Norman England into a museum dedicated to the history of Seljuk Turkey. But there you are.

In any case, it’s anticipated that, as the analysis of the other objects in the Museum’s collection continues, more fakes will probably be found. The Museum expects that the number of red flags will decrease as the relative age of the objects under examination decreases. This seems a reasonable expectation, particularly once the analysis reaches into the 18th-20th centuries, although no doubt there will still be things like fake retablos and reproduction pottery to sort through.

While the findings were rather shocking, the damage here is not ultimately fatal. A collection of over 100 authentic pre-Columbian objects is still a significant one. For our purposes moreover, there are a couple of takeaways for us to consider as part of this story.

First, kudos to both the Smithsonian and to the Mexican Museum for doing their jobs properly. They thoroughly examined the collection under a magnifying glass, using the best experts available, and then publicly addressed the results pf those findings. It’s a breath of fresh air to see public institutions appreciating their duty to the public whom they serve, more than they appreciate their own egos – see, e.g., the current disastrous situation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Second, this is a very useful cautionary tale when it comes to collecting antiquities, whatever culture they may come from. Most of us are not in a position to purchase large numbers of these things, but there are certainly tempting objects out there for us to acquire. In fact, you could go to an online auction right now, and purchase something that was (supposedly) made centuries ago, by a long-vanished civilization. This story ought to show you why it’s important to be extremely cautious, before acquiring something described as a Middle Kingdom ushabti, a Tan Dynasty bronze, or a Classic Maya pot: even museum curators can be fooled.

​So Long, Serota: Another Art Museum Returns To Reason

With the stepping down of Sir Nicholas Serota, after a thirty-year effort to turn the Tate Gallery from a dull if respectable art museum into a schizophrenic, self-congratulatory fashion brand, the art world has been relieved of one of the most overrated talents to strut upon the world stage since Herodias persuaded her daughter to commit murder through striptease.

Although he was not the first person to implement it, one of Serota’s most influential legacies was the thematic “re-hang”, which was adopted by many collections around the world. This involves the rearranging of works in a museum’s permanent collection to more resemble temporary, thematic exhibitions. The resulting juxtapositions are based not on the chronological and stylistic developments which provide a logical framework for the study of art history, but rather on an attempt to explore idiosyncratic subjects or even personal feelings, often as selected by a particular curator.

To be fair, there are merits in not always sticking to a strictly linear timeline in the display of art, at least in certain circumstances. Historic homes are one instance; temporary exhibitions exploring particular subjects are another. For the most part however, at least before Serota et al, public institutions usually stuck with logically-assembled displays for the works in their permanent collections. Thus, if you visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Egyptian art collection is – surprise – displayed in the Egyptian galleries, while the French Impressionists are not.

Like all fads however, the a-historical display of art seems to be headed to the clearance racks. Regular readers will recall that a couple of years back, I reported on how Tate Britain, which was the original nucleus of Serota’s powerbase, rejected his policies and went back to its role as a preserver and educator on the subject of British art history. About a year later, I applauded the new chairman of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Met, who rejected the idea of turning the public art museum into something “mushy”.  

Now the Art Newspaper is reporting that, a little more than a decade after The Getty “Serota-ized” itself, the powerhouse Los Angeles museum is going back to an historically-grounded display of its permanent collection:

The Australian director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Timothy Potts, proposed the rehang when he was first recruited to lead the Los Angeles institution in 2012. Themed galleries are “fine as a social history of art”, says Potts, who is a specialist in ancient art. But chronology, he says, is “the only way you can understand the direction of stylistic change”.

The Getty’s return to chronology is part of a wider trend in US museums. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, reopened its East Building last September with a clear historical narrative of Modern art. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art recently closed a year-long presentation of works from the 1960s, installed by year across nine galleries.

Hopefully even more institutions will be following suit, now that Serota is gone, and the teachings of his disciples have been anathematized by more traditional cultural institutions. I could care less what happens in museums of contemporary art, of course. But it would be nice if the leadership of traditional art institutions such as The Prado, a museum whose re-hang becomes a more painful experience every time I visit, would realize that it is time to abandon the faddish, and return to the serious study and presentation of the works entrusted to their care.