The National Museum of American Art will sell off 79 "minor" paintings, sculptures and watercolors from its bulging storage bins this fall. The New York auction house of Christie, Manson & Woods will place them in various public sales, starting with 18 paintings on Sept. 27.
Christie's estimates the total value of the 55 American and 24 non-American works at between $107,050 and $161,450, suggesting the absence of any single major item. The proceeds will be used "only for the purchase of works which would be more important to the museum," says museum Director Charles Eldredge.
Such "de-accessioning," as it is called, takes place regularly, but has sometimes precipitated major public outcry, especially when handled out of the public eye, as was the case some years ago when the Metropolitan Museum of Art privately sold a major work by Henri Rousseau to a Japanese collection.
"Such sales now usually take place at public auctions because of that unhappy experience," says Eldredge. This sale was arranged with great care: "We've carefully looked at our files and checked with the Smithsonian general counsel's office, and there are no restrictions or conditions attached to any of these works," says Charles Robertson, assistant director for administration at the museum. No living artists are involved.
"The only scandal is that we haven't sold anything before this time," says William Truettner, NMAA's curator of painting and sculpture, who describes the works in question as "a hodgepodge." "As a government repository, we've been much too lenient. Most museums would have de-accessioned these things before now. It's a question of housekeeping problems."
Even informed museum-goers are unlikely to have heard of most of the artists on the list, which starts with Gabriel Pierre Marie Bouret and ends with Frederick Ballard Williams. "Nor have I," says Eldredge.
According to Truettner, "The curators went through storage item by item over a period of weeks, and then cross-checked everything against our records to see what we had permission to de-accession and were honoring donor's wishes. We don't want to scare future donors off, or make anybody unhappy who has donated things previously in good faith to the institution."
All donors have been contacted and notified by letter, and acquisitions made with income from the sales will be credited to them. All works were offered to other Smithsonian museums before they were offered to Christie's.
The only well-known artist involved is Gilbert Stuart, whose portrait of Joseph Head will be offered for sale in December. The presale estimate is between $10,000 and $15,000. "It's a minor Gilbert Stuart, and we have superior examples in the collection," says Eldredge.
Among the 18 works to be included in the Sept. 27 sale of American paintings are examples by William Louis Sonntag, William Chadwick, George Peter Alexander Healy and Henry Hobart Nichols. "We've had a lot of interest in the Sonntag and the Chadwick in particular," says Debra Force of Christie's.