Going, going … GONE! When is it acceptable to sell public art?

Going, going … GONE! When is it acceptable to sell public art? It’s happening more frequently than you might think. There was a time when I had assumed that once a work of art had been gifted or bought by a public art gallery, there it would stay (apart from loans and special exhibitions). Later I learned that galleries do sell art works in order to acquire others, thereby developing their collections. That sounds reasonable and responsible. But in the last few years I have noticed a disturbing trend, both in the UK and in the United States, to sell public art for other purposes – to help pay for running costs, for building extensions, to reduce debts and to develop endowments.

Painting The Somnambulist by Millais was sold

This might seem a dry subject, but it’s not so dry when specific paintings that you had hoped to see, turn out to have been flogged off to the highest bidder, and in many cases have vanished into a private collection. Twice on this blog I have asked if anyone knew the location of The Somnambulist by John Everett Millais. It was sold by Bolton Council via auction in 2011 (along with other pieces of art). It is thought by some that the Millais painting was inspired by The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, one of my favourite novels.

There is a further mystery in that while searching the internet for any signs of the painting I found a photograph of it (the original?) on The Beautiful Necessity blog at which time it was apparently hanging in the Delaware Art Museum. Wonderful, I briefly thought. It has not vanished into a vault, but appears to be proudly on display in a public gallery. But alas it is not listed in the museum’s permanent collection, and does not seem to be on display there any more.

Delaware’s art museum is one that I have always wanted to visit. It has the finest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in North America. But whilst looking through the collection lists of the museum I came across some disturbing information (widely publicised at the time).  The museum has been selling art to pay down debt from building projects.

Small version of the painting Isabella and the Pot of Basil

In 2014 it sold Isabella and the Pot of Basil by Holman Hunt [Note: there is another version of this painting] via auction at Christie’s in London. According to the Delaware Times, the name of the buyer is ‘undisclosed’. And in 2015 it sold Winslow Homer’s Milking Time and Andrew Wyeth’s Arthur Cleveland. The museum did not say how much the sale (and, I believe, other sales) raised, but did say that it had been able to fully repay debt of US $19.8m (c.£15m). Previously the museum had said that it would raise $30m (£23m) in total via this means.

The Association of American Museum Directors had, apparently, warned Delaware Art Museum in advance that selling artworks for non acquisition purposes was a ‘serious violation’ of its code of ethics and professional standards. The Museum temporarily lost its national accreditation and this has made it difficult for it to borrow artwork from other galleries. In my view Delaware is still a fine art museum that I would like to visit, but it has, perhaps, lost some national and international credibility as a trusted custodian.

Ancient Egyptian artefact, Sekhemka statue

It is not just Bolton Council and the Delaware Art Museum that have shed art works to pay their bills. I regularly stumble on examples of this practice – and I’m sure I miss many. In 2014 Northampton Museum (Northampton Borough council and the Marquis of Northampton) sold the 4,500 year Ancient Egyptian statue of Sekhemka. This statue raised the record sum of c.£16m (c. US $21m) when it was sold to a private collector. Northampton Museum was temporarily stripped of its official museum accreditation and barred from public funding by the Museums Association, Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Hopefully this will provide some disincentive to others, but I have my doubts. A public embarrassment, a small financial sting and a bureaucratic inconvenience is hardly a match for a multiple million pound windfall.

Image of a Henry Moore statue

I’ll mention just a couple more. Back in 2012, Tower Hamlets Council agreed to sell a Henry Moore statue to help them cope with a £100m (c. US $130m) budget cut. Apparently the statue had been donated (or sold at a reduced cost) by the artist on the understanding that it would be left permanently on open-air display for the enjoyment of people in a socially deprived area of London. Around the same time Leicester City Council sold art works valued at around £200,000 (c. US $260,000).

One major issue is the obvious breach of trust that occurs each time there is a sell-off of public works, often donated in good faith, for non collection development purposes. If you were in the fortunately position of owning a major art work, how comfortable would you feel about donating it to Delaware Art Museum – or a gallery supported by Bolton/Leicester/Tower Hamlets Council – based on their track record of custodianship?

The officials who have to take these big decisions are not wicked and evil, they are operating in a difficult environment and choosing what they think is the least worst option. The alternative might be the immediate closing of a library or cancelling a meals-on-wheels service. But the logic they are using is the same that could be applied to all art galleries and museums across the country. There are 16,000 works in the National Gallery (London), it is a wonderfully balanced collection of Western art. Imagine how much this art is worth on the international art market and the good things that could be done by a mass sell-off. Perhaps a complete sale of all artworks and artefacts in the UK would fund the NHS for six months. Ultimately it is a matter of whether we value art and heritage as something worthwhile that helps add to our health and happiness, and increases our understanding of the human story. Or whether we see it as a cash cow to be milked on a regular basis, as long as we still have it. I hope the former.

I have tried to be fair in this post, and I hope there are no inaccuracies. It may be that you have far more expertise in this area than I do – I make no claims. I’m merely an interested observer looking in. Any thoughts or corrections welcome.

I have written a postscript to this post, written 23 Aug. ’17 – another “sell-off” to add to the list.


11 thoughts on “Going, going … GONE! When is it acceptable to sell public art?

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  1. Intersting post! This is one of those (many!) questions where I’m not sure what I think. On the one hand, I totally agree that it would put me off leaving my mythical art collection to a museum if I thought they might sell it off into private hands – somehow that almost seems like defrauding the inheritors of the donor’s estate. On the other hand, I can quite see why museums feel forced to do this if they’re in economic difficulties. It all comes down to funding – are we willing to pay higher taxes, or entrance fees, to allow museums to survive more comfortably? I think for some of us the answer to this question would be yes, but for many I’m sure it would be no. And again, would those higher taxes not be “better” spent on the NHS, dementia services, etc? Perhaps museums should try to do less – to acquire less. Maybe they should ask philanthropists to donate cash rather than art, sometimes at least. Or maybe they could be more innovative about generating income – renting art out for short periods at exorbitant rates to rich people? Loads of museums have far more stuff than they could ever display and keeping art in storerooms doesn’t seem like a good solution either…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. PS It reminds me actually of discovering recently that books handed into charity shops are often then sold to second-hand book dealers – many of the second-hand books for sale on Amazon etc come from charity shop donations. I’m not at all sure how I feel about that either…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Re your PS. If someone donates books to a charity shop presumably they expect them to be sold by the charity (Oxfam or Cancer Research etc) and the money used for charitable purposes. But you’re thinking that, perhaps, the charity shop that receives them should sell them on the premises, rather than online or via third parties? Interesting distinction – it would keep it local. I don’t think that particularly bothers me though. It might even be better for independent bookshops (closing on a regular basis) for charity shops to sell online only. At present they are tough competition as charity shops (I think) don’t pay for stock, business rates or staff salaries.


      2. Yes, I think it’s the idea of a third party making a profit out of it that bothers me a little. But actually what always bothers me more is that authors don’t profit at all from all these second-hand book sales, and as you say it affects booksellers too. It’s one I struggle with every time I drop off a load at the charity shop.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Re your main points. You’ve raised a few issues there! It is more nuanced than I have probably suggested.

      But I still think that selling off “the family silver” to help pay for running costs of xyz is a short-term solution. It may buy you a little time, but soon you’ll have to face up to your regular bills AND you won’t have “the family silver”.

      Also – I don’t think we should under-estimate the value of art and heritage to a healthy, happy society. It’s not (I don’t think) just a nice, optional extra.

      We could charge for all museums and art galleries, of course, but then only the wealthy and tourists are likely to visit. I grew up in a large family and we could barely afford the bus fare (taking our own lunch) to get into London for a museum or gallery. If there had been charges it’s highly unlikely we would have been able to go.

      I agree that there is a lot of “stuff” in storage, I would like to see some of that liberated, and our collections travelling about the country more (shock horror – sometimes away from London). However, this wouldn’t be cheap. The National Portrait Gallery (London) says it plans to “.. partner with other museums including in Coventry, Manchester, Sheffield and Southampton“. Not sure exactly what that means, but I know it has a big lottery grant. Promising.

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  2. Selling ‘public’ art is a fact of life and I think we have to accept that it goes on and is sometimes a necessary ‘evil.’ Many owners do of course lend their acquisitions to museums and galleries, and that’s a ‘good’ thing. It would be nice to think that (maybe) we could have laws that make disclosure of purchaser’s name mandatory. (??)

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    1. I have a feeling we often aren’t told the purchaser’s name, because of worries about security/theft. If we know A.N. Other had bought an expensive painting nefarious people might be inclined to visit and purloin it – Raffles style (or less elegantly!).

      The more I look into this, the more it seems like having public art collections at all (especially “free” access ones) shouldn’t be taken for granted, it requires a few different things coming together – and a general belief that it is a good thing. These days the super-rich seem more inclined to invest in football clubs and super yachts, rather than patronising the arts – and public authorities are under huge pressure. Best to enjoy what we can, whilst we can. 🙂

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