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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

The Statues That Washington Forgot

Now that the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery has announced it will be closing for major renovations for the next three years, it seems an opportune moment to address a subject which one of my readers alerted me to some time ago.  The grand museum on Pennsylvania Avenue here in Washington, across the street from the even grander Old Executive Office Building, was known as “The Louvre of Washington” when it opened in 1874, thanks to its combination of French Second Empire style and luxurious gallery spaces.  It was the first home of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which by 1897 had grown so large that it moved to its present location a block away.

However the keen-eyed  observer of the building will notice something amiss on its imposing red brick and sandstone: why are there only two statues, when there appears to have been space for so many more?  The answer, as it turns out, is that the museum was originally adorned with many over-life-sized statues of important figures from Western civilization.  So where have these works gone?

The eleven statues that originally stood along the facade, each standing around 7 feet high, were carved in Rome to order for William Corcoran by American sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844-1917).  After the Corcoran collection left the building in 1897, it was turned over to the Judiciary, and served as a Federal courthouse for the next 50 years.  Ezekiel’s statues were subsequently removed from the exterior, since it was determined that they had no relevance to the new use of the building, and in 1901 they were sold at auction to local heiress Evelyn Walsh.

Walsh owned what was formerly known as the Friendly Estate in NW Washington; a gigantic expanse of land that was later sold off and subdivided into numerous communities.  She arranged the Ezekiel statues around her swimming pool, and presumably bathed under the appreciative gaze of Da Vinci, among others.  Through subsequent auctions after the sale of her estate, the collection of statues was eventually split up among several owners in Virginia.

Meanwhile, by the 1950’s and continuing through the Kennedy Administration, Congress began to consider a proposal that the old, crumbling Corcoran museum be demolished, so that a new and more efficient courthouse could be built in its place.  Eventually LBJ intervened, thanks to lobbying pressure from people like Jackie Kennedy, historic preservationists, and S. Dillon Ripley, the influential Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution for many years.  In 1965 the building was turned over to that body, and following renovations it opened to the public in 1972 as the Renwick Gallery, a museum of American craft and design.

Today the statues carved by Ezekiel for the facade of what is now the Renwick Gallery stand in the Botanical Garden of the city of Norfolk, Virginia, hundreds of miles away.  An owner of six of the sculptures donated his to that city, for placement in the public garden back in 1963.  Eventually the owners of the remaining five were located, and persuaded to donate their statues to the city of Norfolk as well.

Several months ago a friend from Twitter alerted me to the fact that he had taken his family to see these same gardens, and while admiring the statues was surprised to learn that they had been transported to his city from Washington.  While originally these sculptures would have had at least some protection from the elements, standing in their covered cubbyholes studded across the facade of the Renwick Gallery, for decades now they have been completely exposed to the elements, standing out unprotected in the snow, rain, and summer heat which characterize this part of the country.  No doubt standing around Mrs. Walsh’s swimming pool did not do them much good either.

While the Ezekiel statues are no longer the property of the Federal government, it is a pity in some ways that they cannot be returned to their original home on the facade of the building for which they were designed.  Today, copies of two of the statues – those of artists Peter Paul Rubens and Esteban Murillo –  stand in their original niches on the facade.  They seem isolated and forgotten, without purpose, particularly without their brethren.

Admittedly, the Renwick, unlike the Corcoran which preceded it in the space, is not an institution that attempts to provide a reasonably encyclopaedic overview of the history of Western art.  However one cannot help but think that those empty niches ought to be filled with what was originally placed there by the architects, artists, and donors who built it.  Instead, these original works of art are now covered in mold, crumbling away in a public park, leaving the building originally designed to display them lacking a crucially important part of its intended decoration.


“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Moses Jacob Ezekiel (c. 1871)
Botanical Garden, Norfolk, Virginia