Mark Gold has a piece on deaccessioning in the latest issue of the Journal of Advanced Appraisal Studies (portions of which appeared in a 2009 article he did for Museum magazine).
He runs through the real-life example of the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass. (about 90,000 visitors per year), which recently deaccessioned "three Russian paintings that had no relevance to the collection and had never been exhibited in more than 50 years of ownership" (my emphasis). The museum netted $7 million from the sale -- "a very big day in the life of an institution with a $2 million operating budget." The museum has recently had to reduce staff to meet budget shortfalls, and planned capital improvements have been put on hold. "The collection on the other hand is well cared for, and there is no interest in expanding in a new direction." Despite all that, "the ethical rule prevents the museum from accessing those funds to support its present operating and capital needs and to sustain its programs." That, he says, "is the tragedy of the rule."
He concludes with a call for a "balancing of priorities": "placing the viability of the museum and its programs on at least an equal footing with the collection. Why not make it ethical for a museum to weigh priorities and make difficult choices without fear of condemnation and ostracism?"
It's a good question.