A group consisting of 23 former trustees of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and the Walters Art Museum demands the State’s intervention to prevent the auction of three artworks from the museum’s collection. These are three works by Andy Warhol, Brice Marden, and Clyfford Still. The auction will take place at Sotheby’s on the 28th of October.
The 23 prominent supporters of the BMA sent a six-page letter earlier today to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and Secretary of State John C. Wobensmith.
The authors blame the BMA for drafting a plan with legal and ethical problems. They also argue that the museum is selling Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper“ at “bargain-basement price.”
The Letter’s Content
The main author of the letter is Laurence J. Eisenstein, an attorney and former BMA trustee. Interestingly, she has served as chairman of the art acquisitions committee of the museum. Other signatories include former BMA board Chairwoman Constance Caplan and five past members of the contemporary art acquisitions committee.
The letter detects serious conflicts of interest regarding the decision to sell the paintings:
“There were irregularities and potential conflicts of interest in the sales agreement with Sotheby’s and the process by which the staff approved the deaccessioning.”
More specifically, it claims that the museum staff approved the deaccessioning plan because they stood to gain from the benefits and increase in salary the plan promised.
The letter discusses in detail the importance of the three deaccessioned paintings and the financial condition of the museum. It argues that there is no curatorial or financial justification for deaccessioning the paintings and ends in the following words:
“We look forward to your investigation… and urge prompt action before the October 28 sales of these iconic artworks are finalized and the State of Maryland loses a significant part of its cultural heritage.”
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The Baltimore Museum Of Art’s Deaccessioning Plans
The Baltimore Museum of Art is home to a large collection of 19th-century, modern, and contemporary art. It was founded in 1914 and today has 95,000 works of art. This includes the largest collection of works by Henri Matisse in the world.
At the beginning of October, the BMA announced that it was deaccessioning three major paintings from its collection. The decision was a result of the relaxation of the use of deaccessioning funds by the US Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).
The auction of the three paintings will take place at Sotheby’s on 28th October. The museum is expecting to earn around $65 million from the sale. The paintings are:
- Brice Marden’s “3” (1987–88)
- Clyfford Still’s “1957-G” (1957)
- Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper” (1986). Sotheby’s will auction this in a private sale.
The Museum has said that it will use the profit to secure salary increases and diversity initiatives for its staff. Also, it will cover future collection maintenance costs including store and care. A grant of $10 million will go towards new acquisitions.
A Controversial Decision
The decision to deaccession the paintings is highly controversial. In an article, museum expert Martin Gammon wrote that the BMA’s deaccessioning plan was “a disturbing precedent”.
BMA curators’ response to this criticism was that:
“Museums are not mausoleums or treasure houses, they are living organisms, oriented to the present as well as the past, and that is where the fundamental disagreement lies.”
In any case, the BMA is not alone in its deaccessioning course. The Brooklyn Museum has also announced the selling of 12 Old Master and 19th-century paintings. Their auction took place today (15 October) at Christie’s in New York.
The Three Paintings From The Baltimore Museum Of Art
“3” (1987–88) is the only painting by Brice Marden in the possession of the BMA. Marden is an important American abstract painter who is still alive. Selling artwork of living artists is highly uncommon.
Clyfford Still was a major abstract expressionist who lived in Maryland from 1961 through 1980. He donated “1957-G” (1957) to the BMA in 1969.
Andy Warhol was a leading figure of the Pop Art movement who died in 1987. “The Last Supper” (1986) is one of the 15 artworks by the artist currently owned at the museum. The monumentality and religiousness of the work make it stand out as an artwork of a unique character. It is believed that Sotheby’s has guaranteed that painting for $40 million. In 2017, a Warhol painting from the same series sold for more than $60 million.