Why Are Museums Selling Their Masterpieces?

With four major American museums auctioning paintings by famous artists at Sotheby's this year, Barnebys investigates the growing trend of deaccessioning.

Why Are Museums Selling Their Masterpieces?

The collections of American museums are undergoing major transformations in 2019 and, as a result, four top art institutions (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Guggenheim and SFMOMA) auctioned important works at Sotheby's this year. This spring, each parted with multimillion dollar masterpieces in an effort to diversify their collections and rethink established art historical canons.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: The Met
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: The Met

Deaccessioning is the term used for museums selling works from their collections, often to benefit their new acquisitions fund. The process of deaccessioning is governed by guidelines outlined by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) which state that any funds raised from selling works from a museum's collection may only go towards a new acquisitions fund and upkeep and not towards the financial operation of the institution.

While deaccessioning has been occurring at regional museums, the fact that this phenomenon is occurring simultaneously at four of the country's biggest art institutions signals a shift in museum curation to better reflect the 21st century milieu. A recent study published in February 2019 by the Public Library of Science found that 85% of artists represented in the US's 18 major art museums are male and 87% are white. The study's results found that there is "a very weak association between collection mission and diversity, opening the possibility that a museum wishing to increase diversity in its collection might do so without changing the geographic and/or temporal emphases of its mission." As the lack of diversity in museums' collections is exposed and reevaluated, more museums may turn to deaccessioning to fund more varied and inclusive acquisitions.

Untitled, Mark Rothko. 1960, oil on canvas. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel
Untitled, Mark Rothko. 1960, oil on canvas. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel

At Sotheby's Post War and Contemporary sale in May, SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) auctioned Untitled, a Mark Rothko Color Field painting from 1960 for $50 million. The oil on canvas was a gift from Peggy Guggenheim and has been in SFMOMA's collection since 1998. The museum announced that the reason behind the sale was to "broadly diversify its collection, enhance its contemporary holdings and address art historical gaps." Neal Benzra, the Director of SFMOMA, added, "With a spirit of experimentation, diversity of thought and openness to new ways of telling stories, we are rethinking our exhibitions, collections and education programs to enhance accessibility and expand our commitment to a global perspective, while sustaining our dedication to Bay Area and California art."

Untitled, Zao Wou-Ki. 1958, oil on canvas. Image: Sotheby's
Untitled, Zao Wou-Ki. 1958, oil on canvas. Image: Sotheby's

New York's Guggenheim Museum sold a work by a modernist of the same era as Rothko, Zao Wou-Ki. The sale was especially timely because the late Chinese artist reached global prominence last year when he became the most expensive Asian modern artist. His large-scale oil painting Juin-Octobre 1985 sold for $65.2 million, making it the tenth most expensive work sold in 2018. On March 31, Sotheby's Hong Kong auctioned Wou-Ki's Untitled (1958), an oil on canvas from his Oracle Bone period, for $14.7 million, almost double its low estimate of $7.7 million. The artist's works fuse ancient Chinese art forms with contemporary abstraction. Untitled was donated to the Guggenheim 55 years ago and was sold to benefit the museum's art fund.

Girl on a Divan, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. 1906, oil on canvas. Image: Sotheby's
Girl on a Divan, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. 1906, oil on canvas. Image: Sotheby's

MoMA divested itself of two works at auction this year to benefit their acquisition's fund: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Girl on a Divan and a drawing by Pablo Picasso. Kirchner's vibrant German Expressionist oil on canvas was painted in 1906 and sold on February 26, 2019 at Sotheby's for $5 million. The Picasso pen and ink drawing on paper, titled Joueurs de flûte et nus couchés (Flute players and reclining nudes), depicts Picasso's muse Marie-Thérèse Walter and dates to 1932. In MoMa's collection for almost 60 years, it sold on March 28, 2019 at Christie's in Paris for $321,000.

Joueuse de flûte et nu couché, Pablo Picasso. 1932, pen and India ink on paper. Image: Christie's
Joueuse de flûte et nu couché, Pablo Picasso. 1932, pen and India ink on paper. Image: Christie's

The country's leading modern art museum is closing in June 2019 for four months to complete a $400-million expansion, which will unveil new studio and performance art space and redesigned galleries that will highlight underrepresented artists. The Kirchner and Picasso sales are likely part of MoMA's goal to focus its acquisitions on a more diverse cast of artists. Glenn Lowry, the museum's director, told the New York Times in 2017 that the redesign was "a rethinking of how we were originally conceived. We had created a narrative for ourselves that didn’t allow for a more expansive reading of our own collection, to include generously artists from very different backgrounds.”

La Promenande au Bord de la Mer (Le Bois de la Chaise Noirmoutier), Pierre-Auguste Renoir. 1892, oil on canvas. Image: Sotheby's
La Promenande au Bord de la Mer (Le Bois de la Chaise Noirmoutier), Pierre-Auguste Renoir. 1892, oil on canvas. Image: Sotheby's

And at Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on May 14, the Met quietly deaccessioned a Renoir landscape from its prodigious collection for $2.3 million, above its estimate of $1.2-1.8 million, to benefit its European paintings acquisition fund. The Renoir, titled La Promenande au Bord de la Mer (Le Bois de la Chaise Noirmoutier), which translates to 'The Walk to the Edge of the Sea (The Chair Forest, Noirmoutier),' was painted in 1892 at Noirmoutier, an island just off the northwestern coast of France. This work was an important moment in the artist's oeuvre, as he transitioned from classical scenes and nudes to the tenets of Impressionism with characteristic soft brushstrokes and lush illuminated color that create a dreamy vision of an island summer afternoon.

Protesters in front of the Berkshire Museum in 2017. Image: Gillian Jones for the Berkshire Eagle
Protesters in front of the Berkshire Museum in 2017. Image: Gillian Jones for the Berkshire Eagle

Deaccessioning, however, often comes with controversy. Last year, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts held major sales that headlined the news. The museum raised $53.2 million by selling off 20 top works by artists as Norman Rockwell, Albert Bierstadt, Alexander Calder and Thomas Moran to offset their mounting debts. However, using the funds for purposes other than acquisition is against the rules of the AAMD and led to their release of a statement in opposition to the museum.

Shuffleton's Barbershop, Norman Rockwell. 1950, oil on canvas. Image: Collection of Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. ©SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN
Shuffleton's Barbershop, Norman Rockwell. 1950, oil on canvas. Image: Collection of Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. ©SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN

The most expensive sale was Shuffleton's Barbershop (1950) by Norman Rockwell, which the artist himself donated to the Berkshire Museum. Although the hammer price was not revealed, Sotheby's pre-auction estimate was between $20-30 million. After angry outcries that the work would disappear from public view, it was purchased by George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, opening in 2022 in L.A.

Planes, rockets, and the spaces in between, Amy Sherald. 2018, oil on canvas. Image: Baltimore Museum of Art
Planes, rockets, and the spaces in between, Amy Sherald. 2018, oil on canvas. Image: Baltimore Museum of Art

However, in other cases, deaccessioning signals a shift in a museum's ethos. In May 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Art sold almost $8 million worth of art at Sotheby's, including paintings by Andy Warhol, Kenneth Noland and Franz Kline, in an attempt to diversify their collection, replacing them with works by up-and-coming contemporary talents like Amy Sherald (Michelle Obama's portraitist) and Jack Whitten. Christopher Bedford, the BMA's director, said “By moving toward equitable representation and historical accuracy in our collection, we aspire to become a better reflection of our Baltimore community and lead fruitful dialogue on future museum practices amongst our peers."

As museums astutely focus on the holistic diversity of the artists, mediums and time periods exhibited in their collections, curators today are redefining art history's canon for the 21st century. With the intent to replace the works of artistic legends like Renoir, Picasso and Rothko with underrepresented artists, museums are ushering in a new era of acquisitions that give voice to a wider range of artistic talent.

This is an updated version of the article published on February 27, 2019.

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