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Cashing in or selling out?

A hot art market is too tempting for some institutions to ignore. That's not necessarily for the public good.

January 14, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

THIS is a tale of two de-accessions, the term used for the disposal of works of art by a public institution, usually through sale. The practice is legitimate but thorny -- legitimate because any institution's leaders, who benefit from public tax subsidy, must be free to make decisions they believe to be in the public interest; and thorny because the public is rarely unanimous in deciding what its interests are. De-accessioning often raises hackles.

Hackle-raising is what happened with these two cases -- one in Buffalo, N.Y., the other in Philadelphia -- although the specifics could not be more different. Together they represent the range of issues surrounding art's disposal.

They also demonstrate why every instance is unique. Professional guidelines for de-accessioning do exist, but they are rules of thumb, not law.

Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson University has negotiated the sale of Thomas Eakins' monumental 1875 masterpiece, "The Gross Clinic." This disturbing, epochal image of a doctor working on a patient before students in a surgical amphitheater dramatically intersects art with science as the engine of modern knowledge. Customarily regarded as the greatest 19th century American work of art, its price tag is $68 million.

Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery, meanwhile, is selling more than 170 paintings, sculptures and decorative objects. Surprisingly, the forthcoming sale was announced in November, before a final checklist was compiled. But quality-wise, several works known to be headed to auction are so important that they have the market salivating.

One is an imposing, life-size granite figure of the Hindu god Shiva, seated atop a stylized lotus, carved in Southern India during the Chola dynasty of the 10th or 11th century. Another is an exceptionally rare bronze wine vessel, cast more than 3,000 years ago in Shang dynasty China.

Perhaps most striking is a large sculpture depicting the Olympian goddess Artemis, Apollo's twin, shown with an emblematic sacred deer by her side. Made during the late-Hellenistic or early-Roman Imperial era and estimated to be worth at least $5 million, the sculpture is ranked by scholars among the top tier of Classical bronzes in America. (Like the Shang wine vessel, rarity is part of the reason: Large ancient bronzes were often melted down to retrieve the metal, so only a fraction survive.) Given the much-publicized problem of looted antiquities entering public and private collections during the last three or four decades, the offering of an ancient masterpiece with a pristine title and ownership history -- the museum acquired it in 1953 -- is likely to attract many eager buyers.

Similarities -- and differences

HOWEVER different the case in Buffalo is from the one in Philadelphia, the two have this important characteristic in common: Both feature unassailable masterpieces that have been in public collections for decades (in the Eakins case, for more than a century), and the decision to wrest them loose now is being driven by today's booming art market. Prices for established masterworks, never modest, have become astronomical. The art's stewards have decided to cash in.

The aggressive market is operating as a passive but powerful vacuum, literally tearing important paintings and sculptures from public walls and civic galleries. Current levels of public protection are not strong enough, and we risk the loss of irreplaceable treasures. Standards need to change.

The disposal of art that is poor quality, severely damaged, stolen, fake or outside an institution's established collecting area is routine -- for example, the Getty Museum's forthcoming sale of 39 mediocre paintings from its storage room. Yet I dare say that neither Buffalo nor Philadelphia would be the focus of de-accessioning controversies had the last decade's steep spike in art prices not occurred. Without it, the brilliant art now being sent to market like a fatted calf would not be changing hands.

Jefferson and the Albright-Knox are selling for the same reason -- fundraising -- but with different goals. Jefferson is a medical school, not a museum, and the de-accession income will help underwrite a $400-million campus expansion. In announcing the Albright-Knox sale, a museum spokesman said the objects were chosen because they fall outside "the core mission" of collecting Modern and contemporary art. The $15 million the museum hopes to earn at Sotheby's will be added to the $58-million endowment.

The Jefferson case is convoluted. According to published reports, university trustees approached Christie's auction house in August. Christie's, advising a private sale, contacted representatives of the planned Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in rural Arkansas, whose benefactor, Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, has been spending top dollar to build a collection from scratch.

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