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LACMA raids the stockroom

With leadership in transition, the auction of 47 works from the museum's permanent collection is troubling.

November 01, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

This week in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will put 42 Modern paintings, sculptures and works on paper from its permanent collection on the auction block in a sale the museum hopes will raise at least $10 million. It is the largest de-accession of significant art from LACMA's collection in more than 20 years.

The plan has raised eyebrows. Among the consequential works being jettisoned are Amedeo Modigliani's 1916 "Portrait of Manuel Humbert Esteve," estimated to fetch $4 million to $6 million; Max Beckmann's 1929 "Still Life With Wineglass and Cat," which he lovingly inscribed to his new bride, estimated at $600,000 to $800,000; and, Alberto Giacometti's 2-foot-tall bronze "Figurine," conceived in 1958 and cast in an edition of six the following year, estimated at $1.5 million to $2.5 million.

There are also paintings, sculptures and works on paper by Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Eugene Boudin, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Henry Moore.

Many of these works spend most of their time in storage, where they are mainly accessible to scholars and specialists involved in research. In the U.S. that crucial museum function is steadily being overtaken by "the organ-grinder's monkey" approach: If the art's not out front entertaining the crowds, why bother with the back-room expense of care and feeding?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 02, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
LACMA art sale -- A headline for an article in Monday's Calendar section indicated that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is trying to sell 47 items from its permanent collection. The museum will have 42 items for sale at an auction Wednesday and Thursday.

And in several cases they are works that have been cared for and fed by LACMA for decades. The Modigliani has been in the collection for 54 years, the Beckmann for 46 years and the Giacometti for 41 years.

Exactly why the museum has decided to sell them now is not known, although income from the auction will be restricted to future acquisitions. (Rumors have circulated that a war chest is being assembled for a major purchase, but they remain unsubstantiated.) LACMA's plan to construct a new building -- the Broad Contemporary Art Museum -- is no doubt one force driving the idea, as construction of the Anderson Building for Modern and Contemporary Art was at the time of the museum's last big de-accession, in 1982.

Bizarrely, one LACMA official said the museum was merely pruning redundancies, as if unique works of art were not -- well, unique.

Another official justified de-accessioning the Modigliani by saying the museum also owned two better portraits by the artist -- as if collecting an artist in depth were somehow foolish (would three Leonardo paintings be too many?), and as if museum art collections have no useful function unless composed of unquestioned masterpieces.

LACMA is not alone in selling off important art that, after the auction hammer falls, is most likely to disappear from the public realm into private hands. New York's Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim Museum are two noteworthy institutions that have had controversial sales during the past 15 years, and MoMA and other American museums also have works consigned to this month's auctions.

Art markets, like any markets, are shaped by numerous forces. Today's stratospheric prices in Modern and contemporary art are partly being fueled by the government's steep reduction of the tax rate on the rich, making them awash in the discretionary funds often spent buying art. The market responds by acting like a magnet, pulling paintings and sculptures from museum storehouses.

Certainly it's troubling that LACMA is proceeding with this sale at a time when the museum is, in effect, without responsible artistic leadership. Director Andrea Rich announced her retirement plans last spring, and she steps down from the post next Monday, just after the auctions. A successor has yet to be named.

But the practice is dangerous at any time because errors are easily made. Museum collections should be a hedge against fashion and whim. Tastes change, knowledge is not finite and contingencies abound. With art, a mistake can be irreversible, expensive or embarrassing. De-accessioning, to borrow a phrase, should be safe, legal and rare.

LACMA should know that from experience. Here are two examples why:

* The last time the museum undertook a big de-accessioning spree, in 1982, one painting sold was a small Italian Renaissance triptych -- then attributed to Pietro di Domenico, now ascribed to an unidentified Umbrian painter. An allegory of theological virtues, the gold and tempera panel depicted classically attired figures representing faith, charity and hope, attended by a dog (symbol of fidelity), a pelican (Christian sacrifice) and a phoenix (resurrection).

The elegant picture, probably meant as a domestic architectural decoration, had come to the museum through descendants of an expatriate American art historian in Italy -- a colleague of scholar Bernard Berenson -- whose remaining collection was bequeathed in 1928 to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The Umbrian work was sold at Sotheby's L.A. office.

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