Baltimore Museum of Art Cancels Sotheby’s Auction

Following outrage, the Baltimore Museum of Art dramatically cancelled its scheduled Sotheby's auction of works by Still, Marden and Warhol.

Oct 29, 2020By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
Baltimore Museum of Art, by Eli Pousson, via Flickr (left); 1957-G, Clyfford Still, 1957, via Sotheby’s (right).

Yesterday, a highly controversial Sotheby’s auction of three blue-chip paintings from the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) collection was going to take place in New York. However, just two hours before the sale, the museum announced it was putting a pause on the auction.

The cancelation came as a shock moments before the scheduled auction of works by Still and Marden as well as the private sale of a Warhol painting.

The news will surely reignite the controversy regarding museum deaccessions. It is also a given that the BMA’s moves following the cancellation will influence future developments in the sector.

This dramatic development came a few hours after the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) had implied that recent sales were not following deaccessioning guidelines. Besides, the Museum Of Islamic Art in Jerusalem recently canceled its Sotheby’s sale of 200 objects scheduled for this week. The decision came after a wave of reactions from Israel’s archaeologists and experts, including the country’s Prime Minister.

BMA Cancels Sotheby’s Auction of Works By Warhol, Still And Marden

Baltimore Museum of Art, by Eli Pousson, via Flickr

The BMA has been facing outrage since it announced the deaccessioning of three artworks from its collection. More specifically, in early October it had deaccessioned The Last Supper (1986) by Andy Warhol, 3 (1987-88) by Brice Marden and 1957-G (1957) by Clyfford Still.

The sale was supposed to take place yesterday at 6 pm EDT at Sotheby’s “Contemporary Art Evening Auction” in New York. Warhol’s painting would be sold separately in a private auction and was guaranteed for $40 million.

Until a few hours before the Sotheby’s auction, everything indicated that the BMA stood by its initial decision.

The museum hoped to raise a fund of $65 million in total, to fund equity and diversity schemes. The museum was planning to allocate $2.5 million annually towards increasing staff salaries and lowering entrance fees for special exhibitions and under-served audiences. Another $10 million would fund future acquisitions of works by post-war era artists of color.

The Reactions That Led to The Decision

1957-G, Clyfford Still, 1957, via Sotheby’s

However, many experts had suggested that there were no sufficient curatorial criteria behind the BMA’s sales. Especially Warhol’s Last Supper was considered an iconic irreplaceable work of the museum’s permanent exhibition.

Another criticism the BMA faced, was that it was not in serious financial hardship. Furthermore, it had not exhausted the search for alternative funding sources. Consequently, the decision to deaccession works appeared problematic, at best.

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In addition, the BMA had received internal criticism for its decision to sell these works. On October 15, a letter of prominent former BMA trustees asked the State’s intervention to cancel the auction. The letter argued that:

“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.”

AAMD’s Memo On Deaccessions One Day Before The Sale

3 by Brice Marden, 1987-8, via Sotheby’s

In April, the AAMD had announced that museums could sell works in holdings and use the proceeds for “direct care”. This relaxation of deaccessioning guidelines hoped to aid museums during the pandemic and would last for two years. Each museum would have relative freedom of defining “direct care”.

On October 27, one day before Sotheby’s auction, the AAMD distributed a memorandum to its members. The memo warned them not to monetize collections for purposes other than the direct care of their collection. It also stated that April’s resolutions: “were not put in place to incentivise deaccessioning, nor to permit museums to achieve other, non-collection-specific, goals”.

The memorandum did not name specific museums. Nevertheless, the media perceived it as an indirect criticism of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

After Sotheby’s sale was canceled, Brent Benjamin, the AAMD’s president, stated:

“On behalf of AAMD, I am gratified to learn that the Baltimore Museum of Art has decided to reverse course. As we have said consistently, our April 2020 resolutions were not intended to address needs beyond current, pandemic-related financial challenges. We understand that this was a difficult decision, but believe strongly that it was the right one, based on our view that art collections should not be monetised except in very narrow and limited circumstances.”

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.