Harvard University's cash-short Peabody Museum is planning to sell a number of its pictures - a move with which some scholars in the field strongly disagree.
The Peabody is a museum of anthropology, not art. The picture it intends to sell may have questionable value as ethnographic specimens, but in today's thriving Old West market they may well bring millions if sold as works of art. Their market values range from $1,000 to $300,000 apeice.
They include Henry Inman's copies of 106 Indian portraits. The originals, by Charles Bird King, were destroyed by fire many years ago. Also on the block are a set of Western landscapes drawn from the 387-item collection given to the Peabody by the late David I. Bushnell Jr.
William C. Sturtevant, the Smithsonian Institution's curator of North American ethnology, sees them as "an important part of Harvard's patrimony. They are held in trust." In a letter to his colleagues, Sturtevant has warned that "if they are dispersed, Harvard may well be surprised at the shock and outcry . . . This will amost certainly become another famous deaccessioning scandal."
Peabody director C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky feels, however, that they have minimal anthropological value. Most have never been exhibited, he notes. Photographs of Inman's copies will be retained for study purposes, the paintings will be sold to public institutions, the collection won't be broken, and the most important paintings in the Bushnell group - for instance, George Caleb Bingham's "The Hidden Enemy" - will be retained, he said. "We are not setting a precedent," he added. "This is not a trickle that will become a flood. The Peabody also owns pictures from the voyages of Lewis and Clark, and those Captain Cook. We'd close the doors of the museum before we'd sell those things."
"The Peabody has four floors and an attic," observes Science magazine, "and the further up you go the worse the conditions get . . . There is no temperature or humidity control, and no fire and smoke detectors except in the public galleries. The museum does not even have the money to buy window shades to prevent the sun shining directly on Indian costumes."
Sturtevant, however, feels that its conditions "are not that severe." He writes that "rather than sacrifice an important part of the collections in order to increase the endowment, it would be better to accept some gradual deterioration of the collections and obtain grants and gifts."