In a move that it says is "fraught with dangers," the Corcoran Gallery of Art next spring will deaccession 100 European paintings from its "permanent" collection.
The pictures - worth perhaps $500,000 - will be sold at public auction in order to raise purchase funds for American works of art.
The pictures to be sold are mostly 19th century paintings of the sort collected heartily by the Victorian rich. The majority are portraits, or genre scenes, or landscapes, in academic styles. Their quality is varied.
Peter Marzio, the Corcoran's director, is aware that other institutions - the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harvard's Peabody Museum among them - have felt the neat of so-called "deaccessioning scandals" in recent years. Yesterday he called a news conference to announce the Corcoran sale, and to make these things clear:
The pictures to be sold have rarely, if ever, been displayed.
Some of them were purchased by the Corcoran. None came to the gallery as restricted gifts. William Wilson Corcoran himself, in his 1869 deed of gift, said that the trustees, in order to upgrade the Corcoran's collections, should deaccession works of art as it saw fit.
Corcoran curators Edward Nygren and Jane Livingston have approved the list of paintings scheduled for sale. Marzio has had then hangings in his office "in groups of 10 - to live with them a white and see if they should go." The list was also given the unanimous approval of the Corcoran's trustees.
Wherever it was possible, donors and their relatives have been informed of the sale. And the names of the donors are to be on the new labels of the American works of art to be acquired with the proceeds of the New York auction.
The Corcoran has an "acute storage problem." Because works are now stored in the galleries, the disposal of these paintings will release additional exhibition space.
The Corcoran has deaccessioned works of art before, though never has it sold so many at one time. Some 19th-century French porcelains were auctioned off last year. Since then a Spanish painting of St. Andrew, attributed to "the School of El Greco," was sold at auction in New York.
None of the sale's proceeds will be used for operating expenses. All the money will be spent on American works of art.
There will be no "inside deals." Indeed, no members of the staff will be allowed to bid on the pictures to be sold.
"Some picture are relevant, some are obliquely relelvant, some aren't relevants all to the Corcoran's activities," said Marzio. "It is in the third category that these paintings lie. This muselm rightly stresses American art. Nevertheless, we shall retain many European pictures - Barbizon landscapes, academic portraits - that emphasize the same styles as do these.
Of the 100 paintings scheduled for sale, 31 were purchased a century ago by the founder of th gallery, William Wilson Corcoran.
Though the Corcoran is best known now for its American collections, it saw itself as an encyclopedic art museum when, in 1871, it opened to the public in what is now the Renwick Gallery. There still are Corcoran paintings in the Renwick's "priod gallery," of the 40 hanging there, 23 will be sold off.
Many of these paintings are of small distinction. Those once attributed to Corot and Monticelli (two painters represented well in the Corcoran's collection) have since been demoted, and may in fact be forgeries.
Still, as Marzio acknowledges, there are among the pictures scheduled for sale a number that are "extremely fine."
Among the most impressive are a pair of handsome portraits, both of the Hon. David Jayne Hill, by the Swede Anders L. Zorn. "When Zorn was at his best," said Nygren, "he could paint as well as John Singer Sargent." "Cattle" by Jan Bedys Tom, "Effect of Snow" by Luigi Loir and "Venetian Balcony" by Mortimer L. Menpes are also paintings of good quality.
A number of the pictures are of historic interest. These include Ivan Aivasovsky's scene of Russians in a troika waving the Stars and Stripes, Walter Greaves' rather muddy portrait of James A. McNeill Whistler in monocle and top hat, and Armand-Dumaresq's "The Geneva Conference."
A number of the pictures might be seen as curious footnotes to other works of art in the Corcoran's collection. "The Veiled Nun" whose marble face is both concealed and revealed by a marble veil is one of the most popular 19th-century sculptures owned by the museum. A similar, though more frilly marble bust appears in "To Louise," thememento mori by Lodewyk Bruckman that is to be sold.
Of the 100 paintings to be auctioned, Mygren expects two pairs - "The Happy Family" and "The Unhappy Family," both of Ferdinand de Braekeleer; and "The Passing Begiment" and "General of the First Empire," both by Jean-Baptiste E. Detaille - will fetch the highest prices.
Marzio says the Corcoran is negotiating with Christie's and with Sotheby Parke Bernet, the New York auctioneers, to see which of the salesrooms will offer the best deal. He expects the heavily advertised Corcoran sale will have an illustrated catalog and will coincide with other New York auctions of 19th-century art.
"Our American collection, fine as it is, has many holes," said Livingston. "We have hardly any 19th-century trompe loeil paintings. We've been looking for a good John Frederick Peto for so long it's become a joke in the field. We don't have a Charles Willson Peale, or a major Hopper, or a major Stuart Davis. These are holes we want to fill. If this effort proves successful, we might consider selling more."