Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Knight on De-accessioning

Christopher Knight had a very thoughtful piece over the weekend in the Los Angeles Times on two recent high profile de-accessionings, the Gross Clinic sale in Philadelphia and the Albright-Knox museum's decision to sell off more than 170 works, which he says "together ... represent the range of of issues surrounding art's disposal" and "demonstrate why every instance is unique." The whole thing is worth reading, but some highlights relating to The Gross Clinic:

1. He says the "moral objections" of the Philadelphia art establishment "were blurred by the fact that they were already heartily engaged in 'the rape of the Barnes' — a shady maneuver by which the city managed to snag from a neighboring county the greatest privately assembled collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern art. The local establishment is wrecking the Barnes' irreplaceable value as a cultural monument, while squandering $200 million in charitable funds to move it downtown."

2. He says Alice Walton should "reconsider the quality of the advice [she] was getting. Yes, $68 million is a lot of money. ... Still, my first thought on hearing of the sale was, 'What a steal!' The caliber of the masterpiece, coupled with the state of today's art market, made the price seem low. ... The neophyte collector, with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $18 billion, could easily have put the picture beyond competitive reach while feeling no pain. She didn't, and the prize was lost."

3. "Likewise, Jefferson trustees must now be wondering whether the sale did in fact maximize the monetary value of their asset."

4. He says "we all owe the university a deep debt of gratitude. By negotiating only with public art museums, an irreplaceable masterpiece was kept from disappearing into a private collection. That counts for a lot."

5. His conclusion: "The Assn. of Art Museum Directors requires that de-accessioning be governed by a member institution's written collection management policy. ... It should strengthen that constraint by requiring that objects of substantial value be offered to other museums first."