American museums preparing to sell certain masterpieces

[25 Sep 2020]

Brooklyn Museum to Sell 12 Works as Pandemic Changes the Rules… the title of Robin Pogrebin’ article in the New York Times on 16 September after the announcement of the Brooklyn Museum’s decision to sell twelve works from its permanent collections.

Faced with the crisis and despite reopening a few days earlier, the Brooklyn Museum had to take this painful decision in order to pay its operating costs… a question of survival. After several weeks of closure, there simply aren’t enough visitors to pay the bills, especially as tourists are still almost completely absent. The Brooklyn Museum needs $40 million for the maintenance of the collections and the payment of its salaries. In this emergency situation, agreeing to part with a few works is indeed the most effective solution.

CranachUntil now, sales of museum works were tolerated by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) in the context of ‘disaccessions’ or ‘deaccessioning’ with a view to reinvesting the proceeds into new acquisitions deemed more ‘relevant’ for the museum. But the powerful Association has relaxed this rule, announcing that it would not penalize museums that resell part of their collection “to pay for expenses related to the maintenance of the collections”, a new temporary regime that has been given a provisional end-date of 10 April 2022. Many museum works are therefore likely to hit the market over the next two years.

For now, the Brooklyn Museum is parting with 12 important works through Christie’s New York, as part of the Old Masters sale scheduled for 15 October 2020. The sale’s star work (and a painful loss for the American museum) is a superb Lucretia painted by Lucas I CRANACH (see picture above) in 1526 expected to fetch between $1.2 and $1.8 million. The estimate is conservative for this work which could climb much higher because the subject is attractive, the provenance superb and Cranach’s prices are currently buoyant.

Among the masterpieces being sold off by the Brooklyn Museum in mid-October are Italienne debout tenant une cruche by the French painter Camille Jean-Baptiste COROT (estimated $200,000 – $300,000), a portrait attributed to Lorenzo Costa (estimated $60,000 – $80,000) and a large Saint Jerome by Donato deBardi, active in the 15th century ($80,000 – $ 120,000). There will also be a painting by Gustave COURBET. In total the works are expected to generate between $2.3 and $3.5 million.

Attributed to Lorenzo Costa

In November 2019, the same museum raised $6.6 million from the sale of a Pope (1958) painting by Francis BACON at Sotheby’s. They are therefore not new to the exercise. What is different is the relaxation of the professional ethical rules on deaccessioning.

In France, where French public collections are declared “inalienable, imprescriptible and unseizable” (except for restitutions), this drastic solution is not even an option. The major French museums (especially in Paris) who are also in serious trouble because of the health crisis, therefore cannot resolve their budgetary problems in this way.

The Louvre, for example, has posted financial losses of 59 million euros since the start of the crisis. This year’s visitor numbers at the famous museum rose from 220,000 in July to 330,000 in August, versus 800,000 per month in the summer months of previous years. Once the health crisis set in, this sharp contraction was of course predictable since foreigners make up the bulk of visitors to the Louvre (75%). Despite this very difficult situation, there are no plans to relax the French regulations governing museum collections.

Above right : Portrait attr. to Lorenzo Costa (coll Brooklyn Museum)