The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When art museums got a green light to sell their art, Sotheby’s and Christie’s came running

Christie’s auction house brokered the sale of the 1946 Jackson Pollock painting “Red Composition” for $12 million in October. The painting was in the collection of the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, which says it is trying to build a collection more relevant to its community. (Christie's Images Ltd. 2021)
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This past year, art lovers paying attention to the plight of museums and the debate around deaccessioning — the term for selling art from collections — have worried that many art treasures would move into private hands. Those fears were triggered when, in the early days of the pandemic, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) made it easier for museums to sell art to raise money.

This is how bad things are for museums: They now can sell off their art more easily

While the deaccessioning windfall hasn’t been as large as many feared (or hoped), the prices and high-profile nature of the artworks being sold — including paintings by such notable artists as Jackson Pollock and Mary Cassatt — signal how much the landscape has already changed.

Just as lawyers reliably benefit from divorces, bankruptcies and car accidents, auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s looked poised to profit handsomely from museums’ financial distress. And indeed, in the year since the pandemic broke and the AAMD loosened its guidelines, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have profited from the crisis. The change in guidelines led to a succession of high-profile sales from a number of museums, including the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Newark Museum of Art, as well as an aborted sale — amid intense controversy — at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

“Since the start of Covid in March 2020, I have overseen sales of $100m on behalf of nonprofit institutions,” Allison Whiting, senior museum adviser at Christie’s, wrote on her LinkedIn page. Sales at Christie’s in 2020 from art museums alone brought in $71 million, about double the figures from the two previous years ($35 million in 2019 and $38 million in 2018). At Sotheby’s, Nina del Rio, head of museum, private and corporate services, oversaw 2020 sales from art museums worth $63 million.

The Sotheby’s figure would probably have doubled if intense controversy hadn’t engulfed a plan to sell an estimated $65 million worth of art from the Baltimore Museum of Art, forcing the works’ withdrawal from sale at the 11th hour.

A Baltimore museum tried to raise money by selling three pricey artworks. It backfired stupendously.

This year already, Sotheby’s has sold $37 million worth of works from art museums, and Christie’s $5.6 million.

But behind these arresting figures is a murkier, more nuanced story. Look closer at the bigger picture — it is more Caravaggio than Claude Monet — and it appears that auction houses have profited less than they hoped and less than many feared. (The AAMD guidelines, mind you, will stay in place until April 2022, so this is merely a halftime report.)

In the days and weeks after the pandemic took hold, forcing arts and entertainment venues to shut down, the AAMD recognized that museums were in real trouble. Their revenue streams had dried up, but they still had enormous expenses. To help museums in financial distress, the AAMD decided to loosen its guidelines on how funds raised by the sale of artworks in collections could be used.

Previously, art museums were permitted to use deaccessioning funds only to acquire new art. The policy was intended to dampen the temptation for museums, which are nonprofits that benefit from the federal tax code, to regard their collections as liquid assets.

Now, for a two-year period, museums would be given a green light to use money raised by deaccessions for costs associated with caring for their collections. (The AAMD is not a binding authority, but it has considerable power to shame and isolate museums that treat their collections as commodities.)

The first week of lockdown in March 2020, Whiting asked her team at Christie’s to assemble a list of more than 1,000 museum contacts. They started getting in touch with them in late March.

“We basically made sure that they all heard from us,” Whiting said in a phone interview. “There was a massive coordinated outreach that was very personal — there was no email blast or anything of that kind. It was: Who knows this director or development director or curator? Let’s reach out to them to say, ‘Our hearts are with you. This is a horrible time, for everybody. We feel your pain. By the way — duh — we work on the auction thing, but that’s not why we’re in touch with you today.’ ”

A similar approach was taken at Sotheby’s. “We made so many calls,” said del Rio. “I think I talked to more museum directors in a compressed period of time than I ever have.”

Del Rio said she had been working from home for only two weeks in the early days of the pandemic when she got a call from Christine Anagnos, executive director of the AAMD. Anagnos, she said, was “giving me the heads-up, explaining to me what was going to happen.”

According to Whiting, Anagnos also tried to make contact with her; they eventually spoke the day before the public announcement of guideline changes. (Anagnos told The Washington Post that she did not discuss or share AAMD’s plan to loosen its guidelines before they were finalized, but she acknowledged having conversations with auction houses about deaccessioning.)

In making calls to museum directors and curators, del Rio said, she wanted to get a sense of whether they were inclined to make use of the new AAMD guidelines. But, like Whiting, she also wanted a more general sense of “what’s going on with your institution” — that is, how they were coping and how they planned to deal with the crisis.

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Even in ordinary times, Sotheby’s and Christie’s work closely with museums. They provide appraisals for insurance and indemnity purposes, facilitate loans for exhibitions (by connecting curators with collectors) and run benefit auctions. But above all, they buy and sell art, making hefty commissions on each transaction.

And in the wake of the AAMD announcement, they handled some eye-catching sales.

Last October, through Christie’s, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse sold a Jackson Pollock painting for $12 million, saying it would use the funds to improve its on-site storage, diversify its collection and pay for the restoration of a Henry Moore sculpture. The same month, also through Christie’s, the Brooklyn Museum of Art sold a painting by the German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach for $5 million, while the Palm Springs Art Museum sold a Helen Frankenthaler, through Sotheby’s, for $3.9 million.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art also has sold works by Mary Cassatt, Jean Dubuffet, Claude Monet, Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, Gustave Courbet and Camille Corot, raising more than $35 million for a fund that it says will pay for collection care.

Last month, through Sotheby’s, the Newark Museum of Art sold works by the Italian modernist Giorgio de Chirico ($2.3 million), as well as by American artists Childe Hassam ($1.2 million), Georgia O’Keeffe ($1.2 million), Thomas Cole, Thomas Eakins, Thomas Moran, Charles Sheeler and Marsden Hartley.

The potential for controversy in sales from public collections is exacerbated by the publicity paradox at the heart of deaccessioning. To justify sales, museums need to talk down the importance of the works they put on the market. But to achieve the high prices that would make the sales worth the trouble, they need to choose valuable works and have the auction houses talk up their importance. It’s no wonder the public is often left confused about the significance of each loss.

And yet, despite all the activity, the AAMD’s decision to loosen its restrictions on deaccessioning hasn’t really resulted in the bonanza for auction houses that many predicted. In fact, when you even it out, sales from art museum collections have been more or less in line with sales pre-pandemic. (The figure at Christie’s is double what it was in 2019, but the figure at Sotheby’s is about half.)

It’s a reminder that American museums deaccession all the time, and have done so for years. Each has its own collections policy. They might want to remove a work they consider redundant so they can buy something that fills a gap elsewhere. They might decide to make more sweeping changes to the story they want to tell by selling multiple works from one part of the collection to boost another. The point is, AAMD guidelines permitted sales for these purposes before their relaxation in 2020. And the auction houses were always there to help.

In 2020, the number of institutions consigning work to Sotheby’s and Christie’s remained about the same as in previous years. Not all the museums selling in 2020-2021 have wanted to make use of the loosened guidelines: They plan to use the funds the old way — for acquiring new art.

“All told,” Whiting said, “it hasn’t been a particularly extraordinary year.”

When Whiting’s team at Christie’s got through to museum leaders, few were in a hurry to exploit the relaxed guidelines. “There was very little ‘Gosh, good thing you called, you’re going to save the day. We were about to call you,’ ” she said.

Alarms sounded early in the pandemic about the viability of U.S. museums have not panned out. Most museums figured out how to survive, Whiting said, “without digging into their collections.” They did have to make other sacrifices, including staff cuts and furloughs, but the situation could have been far worse. The early concerns, she said, “activated a huge amount of philanthropy that bailed out a lot of these museums.”

Many museums also became skittish after the fiasco at Baltimore, when a plan by Director Chris Bedford to sell works by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still and Brice Marden at Sotheby’s attracted so much criticism that it had to be called off. According to del Rio, some museums even held off on deaccessions that would have been permitted under the old guidelines for fear of negative publicity.

The atmosphere of controversy, she said, “zaps confidence in the market, and it affects prices. It’s a real thing. Buyers want to feel confident that what they’re buying isn’t going to be a lightning rod for further controversy.”

When, this March, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — a leader in the field — announced it would make use of the loosened AAMD guidelines to redirect funds from works it had already planned to deaccession, many thought it would trigger a tsunami of deaccessions.

The Met plans to use money from art sales to help it survive the pandemic. Critics say it’s a dangerous precedent.

“People said, ‘Once the Met does it, everyone’s going to do it,’ ” Whiting said. “I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Sotheby’s and Christie’s reached out to museum directors and staff early in the pandemic in part because their own business models looked suddenly precarious. They also have long-standing relationships with museums that were suddenly in flux. According to Whiting, auction houses “provide as much support of and collaboration with museums in ways that are unrelated to buying and selling as we do in that [buying and selling] arena.”

“We’re here to work with these institutions long term,” del Rio said. “We’re not here for next year’s sales.”

That may be stretching it: Sotheby’s is, of course, very keen on next year’s sales, and this year’s, too. But in the end, as Whiting says, “you can’t compel a museum to sell something. They’re on the schedule that they’re on. We respond to their timetables.

“But because of all the other things we do, and because we know them, they know to call us, and hopefully that makes a difference when they want to transact.”

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