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Things That Have Interested Me

Hanging On

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published 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 us pause.

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 imagine.

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