copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
29 September 2007
Should museums and galleries be free to sell
off works of art and other objects from their collections? The
September issue of Apollo has a symposium on the subject, and
the results of a survey. The magazine questioned 50 museum and
gallery curators, and found that 57 per cent favoured a more
liberal attitude to deaccessioning, provided proper safeguards
were in place. Next month, at its annual general meeting, the
Museums Association will present proposals for "responsible
disposal" of surplus objects.
The Apollo leader points out that the current
policy, which is strongly against deaccessioning, dates back
to a code of practice drawn up only in 1977 by the Museums Association
itself. But there were good reasons for that code of practice.
Bad mistakes had been made, especially in the sale of 19th-century
paintings from provincial museums in a period just before they
began to be appreciated again. Those museums made very little
from these sales, and are never likely now to be able to afford
to buy back the sort of thing they lost.
Still, there is clearly a basis of professional
support for a change of practice, always assuming that there
are proper safeguards. But whether they can really be devised
is a question with room for scepticism. Museums may want to
get rid of objects when there is no room to display them, or
no room to store them, or when they are felt to be of insufficient
quality. The first two reasons are bound up with the museum's
own priorities: there may be no room to display a tiny Fabergé
egg, but only because the relevant gallery has been given over
to a collection of Harley-Davidsons. Or there may be no room
to store a great archive, but only because the space has been
given over to a Friends' Tea-Room.
The third criterion - insufficient quality
- is the most difficult to assess. You might think it would
be the easiest, given that museums and galleries are supposed
to be staffed with experts. But taste changes, and perceptions
radically change. The fact that the National Gallery very recently
found a Botticelli in its own reserve collection should give
For the forthcoming Siena exhibition, the curator,
Luke Syson, has found a Sienese painting in the basement which
had never been cleaned or put on display. It is not claimed
as an earth-shattering discovery, but it illustrates the point.
Neither the Botticelli nor this recent piece of serendipity
would be likely to have survived an aggressive clear-out of
the reserve collection.
American museums, which often sell off unwanted
items from their reserves, are always making if not mistakes
then highly questionable decisions. They are all supposed to
have a system of safeguards. They look at who gave the work
of art in the first place, and consult with them or their heirs.
They examine the objects in question at curatorial meetings.
They follow the established procedures.
Not long ago the Metropolitan Museum in New
York, one of the best-run museums in the world, sent some medieval
sculptures to a run-of-the-mill sale, for which they were rather
modestly catalogued. When objects go under the hammer in these
circumstances they are anyway seen at a great disadvantage,
since their museum origin is always clearly marked. They are
put up for sale, as it were, bearing the museum's seal of disapproval.
In this case, the clever London dealer Sam
Fogg thought that several items were not only genuine but of
high quality. After he had bought them he was able to reconstruct
a part of their history, back to a New York museum, long since
demolished, which was the forerunner of the Cloisters, and before
then - crucially - back to the sites they had come from in Europe.
All this added to the scholarly interest, and of course to the
value, of the objects. But the tendency is, when deaccessioning,
to do things quietly.
One of the articles in Apollo mentions the
Met's decision in the early 1970s, under its then director Thomas
Hoving, to sell off its ancient classical coin collection, in
order to raise money towards the purchase of the Euphronios
vase. The less valuable coins from this collection were bought
by the American Numismatic Association, but the gold coins were
dispersed. Now in its new displays the Met has to borrow from
the ANA, since it no longer has its coin room. Meanwhile the
museum last year finally gave up ownership of the Euphronios
vase, which the Italian government had long claimed was stolen.
Nowhere is the issue of taste likely to be
more contentious than in the collecting of contemporary art.
During an artist's lifetime it should be possible for a leading
museum such as the Tate to make a deal with the artist in order
to improve their holdings of his or her work. This might involve
a mixture of exchanges, purchases and gifts.
The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council,
a government body, has set forth guidelines so that, if a work
is being deaccessioned, it should first be offered to other
museums. But this would tie the hands of the Tate. According
to Apollo, because the Tate is unwilling to sign up to the guidelines,
it is only "provisionally" listed on the MLA's register.
There's a catch here, which is that the MLA wants unregistered
museums not to be eligible to receive works of art offered in
lieu of tax.
Well, it's inconceivable that the acceptance-in-lieu
scheme should not apply to the Tate. It is one of the basic
means by which valuable works of art find their way into public
collections. So something will have to be done to tailor whatever
new guidelines there are in future to the different needs and
requirements of different institutions. And what is done ought
to be better than this kind of institutional blackmail.
But do not imagine that you can sit down and
draw up guidelines that will prevent mistakes, abuses, controversial
decisions or indeed catastrophes, if you want a general liberalisation
of deaccessioning policy. Mistakes there will certainly be,
while the benefits, I believe, will be much less than people