More On Deaccessioning

Donn Zaretsky responds to some lazy criticism by Christopher Knight of his deaccessioning arguments.  If you want to have a serious discussion on the merits of a policy, then you should probably avoid distorting the opposing viewpoint, provide some evidence for your position, or at least take the time to read your opponnents views.  In this case, painting Zaretsky with a broad “deregulation” brush, and revealing a real distaste for lawyers generally cuts against any broader point Knight may have had.  Though the latter probably isn’t a bad idea generally—lawyers are a special breed after all—cultural policy and museum management has too long ignored and shunned sound legal principles. 

That appears to be a real shame in this case as Zaretsky probably doesn’t disagree too much with Knight’s core philosophy on collections management.  It seems to me Zaretsky points out the flaws and inherent inconsistencies in the stated policy.  As he argues “what I see myself as having been doing during this debate is pointing out the inconsistencies in, the hypocrisy that is built into, the conventional art world view on deaccessioning (namely that it is perfectly fine when the proceeds are used to buy more art, but absolutely forbidden for all other purposes).”  That seems to me to be a very valuable argument, and an important role that few others have done. 

He goes on to discuss the prominent deaccession examples of recent years, including the National Academy to avoid closing its doors, or Universities want to sell works because of substantial drops in endowments, or Thomas Jefferson decides to sell its $68 million work because nobody visits it, or a universal museum attempts to shift gears because of a declining local economy.  Now we can challenge these stated views, and certainly should maintain healthy skepticism of these attempts to deaccession works.  However the current rules prevent and even preclude this kind of debate. 

As I’ve speculated before, one wonders if in this economic climate, we may have to think about adopting the approach much of the rest of the World uses for cultural management, which is an increased level of Government support and funding.  Much of the cultural management structures in the UK, such as the Waverley Export Process, were initiated in response to economic hard times, and the loss of art and world-heritage leaving the UK and heading elsewhere, namely to the US.  It might be worth remembering, that the Universal Museums in america were formed at the expense of other nations.  Though it may be pessimistic, I’m increasingly convinced that art follows money and influence.    

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The New AAMD Guidelines

While I was on my blogging holiday in recent weeks, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) set a new ethics policy for how art museums should collect antiquities. The AAMD issued a policy which stated essentially that in most cases a museum should not acquire an object unless evidence exists that the object was outside its “country of probable modern discovery bofeore 1970, or was legally exported from its probably country of modern discovery after 1970.”

Much of this is old news to many of you, but I found Randy Kennedy’s NYT article to be a very good summary of the new guidelines, with reactions from Prof. Patty Gerstenblith. I also saw that Mark Feldman, a negotiator of the original 1970 Convention had a very interesting Letter to the Editor, in which he welcomed the new measures, but cautioned that they “may not solve the problem”.

The debate has shifted now to encompass the date of 1970 as a cutoff, though these ethical guidelines are not hard and fast rules. They are guidelines, and art museums can derogate from them freely, though they do so at their own peril. They of course run grave public relations and financial risks when they do so, but this was already the case in recent years, as evidenced by the oft-mentioned repatriations to Italy from the MFA Boston, the Met, the Getty, Princeton, and elsewhere.

Souren Melikian has a follow-up article for the International Herald Tribune, and ties these new guidelines to the shifting antiquities market, though I don’t think this shift has much to do with the new guidelines.

At Christie’s, a sale of antiquities held on June 4 opened with sundry sculptures and other works of art from Ancient Egypt collected by the Swiss Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier, who died in 1946. Extraordinary prices were achieved for the greatest rarities from a collection that did not raise provenance questions.

The auction was only into its second lot when a limestone carving of a coiled snake, 19 centimeters, or 7½ inches, across, shot up to $338,500. This was more than 15 times the high estimate. Executed in the late 3rd to mid-2nd millennium B.C., the sculpture carries a royal dedication inscription to the god Osiris that enhanced its importance, and the Jéquier provenance guaranteed that any institution could acquire it without fear of being faced one day with a restitution lawsuit.

The phenomenon repeated itself as a fragmentary bas-relief carved in the second half of the 14th century B.C. came up. Christie’s thought that the limestone slab, which only preserves the upper part of two character’s heads, might sell for $15,000 to $20,000 plus the 25 percent sale charge. It ended up at $182,000…

A day later at Sotheby’s, bidders were even more willing to pay enormous prices for desirable antiquities that could irrefutably be proved to have reached the West well before 1970.

An elongated alabaster vessel from 6th century B.C. Etruria, reportedly dug up at Vulci, was unusual rather than breathtakingly beautiful with its four female masks carved on the base and the bust of a goggle-eyed woman ghoulishly smiling at the top. But it had been illustrated in 1963 in the magazine Antike Kunst. The alabastron, as containers of this type are called, nimbly climbed to $40,625, more than triple the estimate

I think it is certainly right that reliable provenance information which can establish a solid ethical basis for acquisition will certainly drive up the price of objects. This was already the case though, before the new guidelines, as the sale of objects from the Albright-Knox museum already has shown.

However, it is worth noting that some of this provenance evidence can be manufactured aor forged, and has often been done in the past. Continued scrutiny of the antiquities trade is needed, despite these new ethical guidelines. I’m not sure much has really changed. There is still no definitive account of which objects had been discovered or unearthed before 1970.

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Deaccessioning Controversy in Buffalo

A great deal of controversy has been brewing recently over decisions by museums to sell parts of their permanent collection, or deaccessioning. First, came the decision by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to sell Thomas Eakins’ The Cello Player to purchase an interest in The Gross Clinic.

Now, it seems the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo NY has decided to sell a great deal of its permanent antiquities collection to allow it to purchase more contemporary works. The Buffalo News has a list of the works for auction here. Among the works are classical sculpture, Chinese porcelain, a Benin bronze, and a number of other works.

Colin Dabkowski of the Buffalo News has an article in yesterday’s Buffalo News which indicates a group of concerned citizens called the “Buffalo Art Keepers” are going to challenge the sale in court. Donn Zaretsky at the Art Law blog has more, as does Lee Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum labels the dispute a “showdown”, but that may be a bit generous for the “Art Keepers”. I agree with Zaretsky that it will be extremely difficult for them to prevent the sale. What it will do is raise the cost, both in terms of legal expenses and public opinion, in deaccessioning.

Richard Stanton, the counsel representing the “Art Keepers” says “They intend to protect the membership’s interest in the collection and see that the museum follows its own mission statement and governing rules before they sell off masterpieces of art which have been assembled over the past 140 years.” Perhaps so, and I’ll freely admit I’m not an expert in museum governance regulations, but wouldn’t there be some kind of version of the Business Judgment Rule for museums. In the corporate context, the Business judgment rule states that courts will not step in and interfere with a corporate board’s business decisions. Surely, a similar situation must be at play here.

The “Art Keepers” are arguing that the museum has collected and displayed ancient art and antiquities in the past, but has recently changed its mission to focus on contemporary art. I think the neo-classical design of the museum itself would seem to speak to an earlier intention to display older works. However, shouldn’t a museum be able to shift positions? Do we want to box an institution in and prevent it from shifting a mission in the future? What the dispute really involves is a frustration with members of the public that the Albright-Knox has shifted away from displaying antiquities, and towards contemporary art. We may argue with that decision as a matter of personal taste, but museums should be able to switch positions, and we want our cultural institutions to have some degree of flexibility.

Another dimension to this decision may be that the recent string of repatriation requests by the Italians and Greeks may encourage a museum, especially one needing funds, to sell their antiquities before a source nation makes a very public and very unpleasant request for their return. I do not know the provenance of the Benin bronze the museum has decided to sell, but many of them were taken under less-than-savory circumstances in the 19th century in the Punitive Expidition of 1897. Nigeria has a compelling ethical case to be made for their return.

Limiting museum decision-making could severely restrict our ability to have strong and viable cultural institutions. You risk a great deal by forcing an institution to repatriate objects while also preventing it from selling and managing its collection in a responsible manner.

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