Baltimore Museum of Art Halts Deaccession of Artworks After Controversy

Shreeya Maskey
Published on

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has pushed several art institutions to financial discomfort.  As the pandemic threatens their very existence, some museums have decided to make noted artworks available for sale in an attempt to cover the large drop in revenue. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) created a brief window of opportunity for art institutions to deaccession works and protect their collections in early April of 2020.

Following the relaxation of these deaccessioning standards, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) planned on putting several coveted works up for auction. Among them was Pop artist Andy Warhol’s 1986 canvas, which was slated for a private Sotheby’s sale on October 28th, 2020. The piece depicting Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in black ink on a yellow background was offered with a $40 million estimate.

Hours before the Warhol was to be sold, the BMA decided to halt the process. An emergency meeting called by the museum’s board of trustees raised fears that the “long-standing community of the BMA support is being irreparably harmed” in the wake of a deaccession controversy.

Andy Warhol, The Last Supper (1986). Image courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Andy Warhol, The Last Supper (1986). Image courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The museum’s director, Christopher Bedford, was looking forward to generating a $65 million fund, of which $10 million would be used to add more works by underrepresented artists. $54.5 million would help create a new endowment for the direct care of the collections.

In an interview with The Art Newspaper, former board chairman Stiles Colwill raised questions over the director’s actions. Colwill resigned with immediate effect following a disagreement with Bedford’s plan to sell the paintings. In 2014, he had pledged his estate, worth $20 million, to create funds for the museum. “Just over a year ago I quietly changed my estate plans when it became clear to me that under the leadership of Christopher Bedford the BMA was no longer trustworthy to receive this bequest,” he wrote in an email. The former director of the BMA, Arnold Lehman, questioned the ethical implications of the museum arranging a closed-door event to sell one of the most notable pieces in the permanent collection. “That means no transparency,” he said.

Claude Monet, Les Iles à Port-Villez, 1897. Image from Sotheby’s.
Claude Monet, Les Iles à Port-Villez, 1897. Image from Sotheby’s.

The BMA is not alone in deaccessioning artworks to obtain much-needed funding. “This is something that is hard for us to do,” said Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum. “But it’s the best thing for the institution and the longevity and care of the collections.” The museum hoped to raise USD 40 million to sustain itself, buoyed by the sale of several major works this week at Sotheby’s. Among the highlighted lots that came to auction were Claude Monet’s landscape Les Iles à Port Villez (1897), valued at $2.5 million to $3.5 million and Joan Miró’s Couple d’amoureux dans la nuit (1966)— which shows the artist’s trademark moon and star motifs — estimated at $1.2 million to $1.8 million.

The practice of deaccession to cover operating costs has long been frowned upon. Artnet News points out that many in the museum world are concerned about whether “museums are taking the easy way out and turning their collections into cash machines.” While some argue that museum art will fall into the hands of unknown private collectors and disappear from the public eye, others criticize the ethical standards of the auctions.

Critics and former trustees praised the BMA’s move to halt the deaccession sales: “We feel this decision affirms the essential roles that artworks, publicly accessible collections, and museums play in providing knowledge of the past, offering opportunities for reflection and learning in the present, and laying the groundwork for positive transformation in the future.”

Auction Daily will continue to follow this story as it develops.