Wadsworth exhibits private furniture collection destined for the market

Museum says collector has pledged to donate 30 works

NEW YORK. An exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford includes 166 pieces of Stickley furniture and related decorative objects that belong to a private collector who openly admits he plans to sell the bulk of them. “At Home with Gustav Stickley: Arts and Crafts from the Stephen Gray Collection” (until 4 January) exemplifies the ethical ambiguities that can arise when museums show private collections. Though Stephen Gray says he may donate some objects to the museum, most of his collection will be sold “to take care of my family”, he says. “There will be a liquidation and [the proceeds will be] used for that purpose. I have no tangible assets other than my collection.”

Museums rarely show dealer collections because “it would look like you were hawking someone’s wares”, observes Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums (AAM), which, along with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), sets guidelines for art museums in North America. But the same issues arise when showing private collections destined for the market. Mr Bell says that AAM guidelines make no distinction between loans from private collectors and dealers, recommending that borrowed works be consistent with the museum’s mission and the intellectual integrity of an exhibition, and that they should not present conflicts of interest such as a contemplated sale. The Wadsworth show appears to contradict these guidelines.

“I am not out actively to sell anything in my collection and I am not trying to sell anything that’s in the museum,” says Mr Gray. But he adds: “If someone comes to me because they saw something in a museum or in my house and say they’d be interested in buying that, I may be interested.” Mr Gray insists that he is not a dealer and does not sell material that belongs to other owners. But he acknowledges that he has “probably sold over the course of 30 years a few hundred things”. He says: “Most collectors operate like that. They all do a little bit of business.”

Susan Talbott, who became director of the Wadsworth after the exhibition was on the calendar, says that Mr Gray has promised to donate 30 pieces to the museum, including 16 by Stickley, mainly from a dining ensemble on display. Mr Gray says: “There’s no contract. If I’m going to give them something it will be stipulated in my will.” But Ms Talbott insists the promise is “ironclad”. “Our legal counsel says it’s legitimate,” she told The Art Newspaper. “We were very satisfied with the written document. There is absolute clarity, we are not concerned and feel very confident that a promised gift is a promised gift.”

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Comments

19 Nov 12
14:48 CET

MARCY KATZ, HONOLULU

Maybe Mr. Gray knew back then he was sick and that he would die soon. So of course his collection might be sold. Poor guy, he died at the early age of 77 at the end of October.

22 Dec 09
15:48 CET

JOEL L ROSENBAUM, NEW HAVEN, CT.

I went to the Gustav Stickley exhibition at the Hartford Atheneum and thought it was a marvelous display of arts and crafts work from the Stephen Grey Collection. If Mr Grey has decided, for whatever reasons, to sell some of his work, a year after the show, then that's up to him. Jason Kaufman may not like the timing, but that's too bad.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

STEPHEN GRAY,

I would like to clarify the statements attributed to me in Mr Kaufman’s article, “Wadsworth exhibits private furniture collection destined for the market”. Contrary to what the article reports, I have no intention of selling my collection. As I stated in the article, I am not trying actively to sell anything in my collection and have no intention of selling objects on display at the Atheneum. I would also like to stress that I have in fact made a promised gift to the museum of 30 pieces from my collection, including 16 by Stickley, which will be the first important works of Arts & Crafts furniture in their collection. The gift is legally bound and each promised gift is clearly labelled within the exhibition. I thought that I had made these important points clear in my interview with Mr Kaufman. After seeing the published article, however, it appears I did not, which is why I feel it’s crucial to set the record straight at this time.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

FORD W. BELL, HARTFORD

I thought it appropriate to clarify the comments attributed to me in Jason Kaufman’s article, “Wadsworth exhibits private furniture collection destined for the market”, focusing on the exhibition, “At Home with Gustav Stickley: Arts and Crafts from the Stephen Gray Collection” at the Wadsworth Atheneum (November 2008, p18). My quotations regarding the issue of dealer or collector loans to museums of objects that are for sale were focused on the general principles embodied in the American Association of Museums (AAM) standards, and were in no way applicable to the current exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Further, we learned that Mr Gray has no intention of selling his entire collection, thus the issue addressed in the story has no bearing in this instance. The AAM standards on dealer and collector loans to museums emphasise transparency above all. The museum has met and exceeded those standards. Ford W. Bell President, American Association of Museums

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

JASON EDWARD KAUFMAN, NEW YORK

Jason Edward Kaufman replies: The article did not state that Mr Gray was actively seeking to sell anything in the Wadsworth exhibition, but that he intends eventually to sell the bulk of his collection. Mr Gray made clear that, aside from any promised gifts to the museum, the collection eventually would be sold “to take care of my family”. Mr Gray also made clear that the promised gift remained at his discretion. Evidently his commitment has since been enhanced, for he and the museum now characterise a promised gift of 30 objects as legally binding. I asked Mr Bell about AAM’s standards for museums borrowing objects from private collectors or dealers that may in the future be sold. “Any time you’re borrowing from someone who might have financial interest in the piece and in realising a gain you have to be very careful,” he replied. As he has explained, AAM standards call for museums to avoid potential conflicts of interest, such as a “future sale contemplated”. Mr Bell writes that the Wadsworth has met the AAM standards because “Mr Gray has no intention of selling his entire collection”. Mr Gray’s statements indicate otherwise.

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