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Scandal or Salvation? : More and more institutions are selling off artworks. Are they just cashing in, or is it part of their mission?

March 05, 1995|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Every time the D-word appears in print, it sets off a new round of finger-pointing, hand- wringing and moralizing. Deaccessioning , the art world's term for selling works from museums' and other institutions' collections, is a messy issue that never seems to be ironed out. It only acquires new wrinkles.

Lately, the wrinkles seem to be getting bigger and appearing more frequently. Early last month, the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore requested legal clearance to sell its entire collection of about 20,000 works of art, appraised at $15 million. On Jan. 12, the New York Historical Society sold 176 Old Master paintings from its collection for $12.2 million at Sotheby's New York auction house. Two months earlier, the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center cashed in on an illustrated manuscript by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci at Christie's New York. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates snapped it up for$30.8 million.

Is this a trend?

Each case has its own set of circumstances, but in today's economic climate, when IBM is putting its corporate collection up for auction and the venerable Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is eliminating 83 of 480 staff positions to cope with a $4.5-million deficit, clearly the urge to view artworks as liquid assets is powerful.

Sotheby's sold $12 million worth of art from institutional collections in 1993 and $13 million worth in 1994, and it expects a 1995 total of $30 million--having already racked up $17.7 million in institutional sales, thanks largely to the New York Historical Society auction--says Katherine Ross, head of the firm's museum services department.

Despite these figures, auction house officials deny that deaccessioning is entirely driven by the economy.

More museums are selling works from their collections, and they are increasingly inclined to do so at auction, the officials say, but the reason is that the auction process has become more orderly, forthright and familiar, and many museums have expanded and reworked their collections.

"I see most deaccessioning as a way of refocusing and sharpening the mission of an institution. And most of what's sold is inexpensive material," says Jay Cantor, who directs museum services at Christie's New York.

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Nonetheless, a continuing string of controversies makes deaccessioning a hot topic. In the Baltimore case, the Maryland Institute, College of Art is seeking a declaratory judgment in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City confirming the school's right to sell its collection. The institute plans to use the proceeds to enlarge its endowment, which currently stands at about $9 million.

This is an unusual situation involving a school that has lent its vast collection to two museums for more than 50 years. While Maryland Institute trustees view the art holding as an asset that should be liquidated to further the school's mission, museum officials contend that the collection is part of Baltimore's cultural heritage and should not be sold.

The collection was built by George A. Lucas, a Baltimore businessman who died in 1909. It is composed of 300 paintings by 180 artists (mostly 19th-Century French), 18,783 prints by more than 500 artists, 122 bronze animals by 19th-Century French sculptor Antoine Louis Barye, 50 Chinese and Japanese porcelains, 71 French artists palettes, 1,500 books and various diaries and correspondence.

The prospect of liquidating such a large holding would cause an art world furor under any circumstances, but it has raised howls of protest from the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has maintained and exhibited the bulk of the collection since 1933, and from the Walters Art Gallery, another Baltimore museum, which has housed five pieces since 1944--including by far the most valuable item, "Road to Louveciennes," a painting by Camille Pissarro valued at $4 million to $5 million.

Lucas spent the last 50 years of his life in Paris buying art for himself and acting as an agent for other collectors, including Henry Walters, a benefactor of the Walters Art Gallery. Lucas bequeathed his entire art holding to Walters or, if Walters should die first, to the Maryland Institute. Walters' attorney presented the Lucas collection to the Maryland Institute in 1910, long before Walters' death, with a letter stating Lucas' hope "that it may serve as a continuing example and incentive to earnest ambitious effort of art students" and that the collection "be dedicated to sincere art education" in his native city.

With its then-new fireproof facility, the school in downtown Baltimore was the only suitable local home for the collection at the time. The Baltimore Museum of Art didn't open to the public until 1925, and the Walters Art Gallery wasn't established until 1931. The Maryland Institute maintained the Lucas collection until 1933, then put it on long-term loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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