Gilbert Stuart Among 10 Works Corcoran Gallery Plans to Auction

Thomas Cole's 1841 landscape "The Return From the Tournament" is one of the paintings to be sold.
Thomas Cole's 1841 landscape "The Return From the Tournament" is one of the paintings to be sold. (Corcoran Gallery Of Art)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008

The Corcoran Gallery of Art plans to sell 10 paintings from its permanent collection at a public auction in December as a first step toward refining the museum's focus and providing funds for purchasing future works.

The sale is an extremely rare move for a Washington museum, but not surprising for the Corcoran, which has grappled with its direction and finances for several years. The sale is part of a forthcoming five-year strategic plan examining what the Corcoran should be and how it can achieve stability. Future sales are under discussion.

The lot to be "de-accessioned" includes "John Ellery," an 1810 work by Gilbert Stuart, the master portrait artist, and "The Return From the Tournament" an 1841 landscape by Thomas Cole, a founder of the movement called the Hudson River School.

The museum hasn't signed a contract with an auction house yet, and Corcoran Director Paul Greenhalgh declined to estimate how much the artworks would sell for at auction. "We have a sense of the value of things. . . . We think we will get a good return," he said.

"The de-accessioning comes after a proper analysis of our collections," added Greenhalgh, who became director in 2006 and is overseeing the museum's strategy for the future. "Famously, the Corcoran collections caused a lot of debate because they are quite wide-ranging." In developing a collections policy, he said, five areas were defined as "what the Corcoran has and what has done well."

The Corcoran will concentrate on historic American art from 1700 to 1980; European art from 1600 to 1914; decorative arts to 1980; photography and media arts; and contemporary art, by which it means works created beginning in 1980.

"While many museums, and the Corcoran when I arrived, start the modern era with post-1945 . . . we decided that 1980 would be our starting point," said Greenhalgh. "Most of the areas were obvious. The Corcoran has been known for its collection of American art, and our photography collection is one of the great ones."

All the paintings headed for auction are by respected American artists. In addition to the Cole and Stuart, the paintings are:

"Tenafly, Autumn" by George Inness; "Child Playing With Rabbit" by Eastman Johnson; "The Smithy" by Gari Melchers; "Christmas Roses" by William Glackens; "Giverny Landscape" by Frederick Carl Frieseke; "Spring Landscape" by John Twachtman; "Still Life" by Edmund Tarbell; and "Late Afternoon" by Alexander Wyant.

"We have four Thomas Coles. This one is similar in theme and spirit to one of our others," Greenhalgh said. The Corcoran also has seven Stuart portraits.

Once the museum's core categories were designated, the staff developed de-accession and acquisition lists. Greenhalgh said curators looked to cull "work that is not relevant and that is replicated by other things. We do have works of somewhat questionable provenance. Quite often a work of art has been repaired through its life and you are unlikely to show it." The gallery board approved the sale Monday.

A public auction was selected over private sales, said Greenhalgh, because of the need to be open about the process and follow the Corcoran's own rule to use public auctions.

The guidelines of the American Association of Museums allow the selling of donated works from the collection if the funds go toward further acquisitions or the care of existing holdings. "Proceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum's discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections," states the AAM Code of Ethics.

The director said getting to this stage took two years of research, and future sales are being discussed. "I do" expect other sales, he said.

The Corcoran is the oldest private museum in the city, opening in 1874, and sits on the edge of President's Park, which includes the White House and the Ellipse. Its permanent collection has nearly 18,000 objects, ranging from 18th-century French clocks to works by Andy Warhol and Walker Evans.

In recent years, finances of the museum and its College of Art + Design were a matter of concern to the museum's board, the city and the donor base. For many years the museum carried recurring deficits of $1 million or more and had difficulty raising funds for much-needed repairs on the landmark 19th-century building. A vigorous attempt to raise $200 million for an ambitious extension by architect Frank Gehry failed.

At the close of the fiscal year that ended June 30, the Corcoran had a small surplus and a small operating deficit, Greenhalgh said.

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