There is no such thing as a permanent collection. The artworks that you donate to your favorite museum can be deaccessed—sold off to the highest bidder as it prunes its holdings to make room for, and fund the purchase of, new works. In practice, it means that the museum curator takes a second look at your gift and draws his finger across his throat. Some works transcend personal taste; others simply do not.
Last year, 350 photographs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) did not suit curator Peter Galassi’s taste. He reevaluated the photography collection and culled the works, which sold at Sotheby’s in April for $4 million. Among the deaccessed were photos by lens luminaries Alfred Stieglitz and Man Ray. Galassi says he considered it his duty to sell. “Museums are based on the principle of attempting to separate the great from the very good,” he says. “It’s not proper for current custodians to saddle future custodians with obligations that may keep them from doing their job.”
Their job, says Galassi, is to add to collections. Translation: Sell to buy. The question is, how do you tell the difference between great and very good? “There’s no such thing as absolute unassailable judgment about the quality of a work,” says Galassi. “It’s a collective process that goes on forever. You can make a mistake. There’s no guarantee.”
Last September, Georgia’s Augusta Museum of History sold a Confederate sword to a Missouri history museum for $57,000. The sword, which had been donated to the Georgia museum by an unnamed Augusta woman in 1991, was the most valuable artifact ever released from its permanent collection. The Georgia museum acquired the sword at a time when it accepted almost everything that it was given. Now that it is established, it can take only what it intends to keep. But top museums do have a strong motive to accept less than the best, according to Thomas Hoving, former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, who once wrote, “Every fund-raiser knows that wealthy art lovers are far more likely to give the endowment fund money if the museum will accept any art they want to give.”
MoMA is not obliged to keep or display donated works forever, although the museum does credit donors on exhibit labels of art purchased with proceeds from sales of works they gave. For example, the label for Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, bought with money from the sale of a Degas donated by Lillie P. Bliss, reads:“Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest.”
Auctions of deaccessed works are also a boon to the savvy few who know about them and know what to look for. Only one anonymous collector was among those benefiting from the Sotheby’s photography sale; all the other buyers were art dealers.
As Galassi suggests, curators may mistakenly sell a diamond to buy a dog. MoMA’s founding director, Alfred Barr, deaccessed a Picasso painting, La Statuaire, 30 years ago, believing it “too beautiful to be important.” Today it is considered one of the most complex and masterful studies of Picasso’s studio. A private collector paid $11.8 million for it at auction in 1999.
The April auction was karmic payback: Some of the photographs that Galassi sold had been donated by Barr.