For sale: £8m De Chirico from private museum

A collector in the US is buying the painting from the Estorick Collection


London. The Estorick Collection, a major gallery of modern Italian art in London, is selling one of its greatest works, a 1912 painting, Melanconia, by Giorgio De Chirico.

A source close to the private museum who asked not to be identified told The Art Newspaper that a sale of the work is being arranged to a collector in the United States. Market sources estimate that the painting is worth at least £8m ($15.8m).

A spokeswoman for the Estorick Collection admitted that “the trustees agreed to the disposal of the De Chirico in order to create an endowment for further acquisitions, focusing on the Futurists, and also for the care of the collection”.

But our source says the main reason for the sale is to fund the running costs of the museum and that other fundraising options have not been sufficiently explored. “They don’t need this amount of money to run the museum. There is no proper fundraising structure in place and this [sale] is a case of overkill,” he says.

Our source believes that significant funding could be generated from the Italian community in London, but “no significant efforts have been made to appoint London-based Italian trustees”.

The Estorick Collection says: “Although at present the Foundation has no London-based Italian trustees, it has had three since 1998.”

Collecting Futurism

The Estorick Collection was assembled by the late US art dealer Eric Estorick and his wife Salome in the 1950s. It consists of works dating from 1895 to the 1950s and is the most important private collection of Italian Futurist art in Britain. The Eric and Salome Estorick Foundation was set up in the United States in 1993 as he and his children were US citizens. The UK Foundation was created in 1995.

In 1994, Eric Estorick’s son, Michael, acquired Northampton Lodge, the collection’s north London home. It opened to the public in 1998, with a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant of £650,000 ($1.3m). The majority of the 79 works in the Estorick collection remain the property of the US foundation. However, one of the stipulations of receiving the HLF grant was that ownership of 11 works, including the De Chirico, be transferred to the UK foundation.

The other ten works owned by the UK foundation include another De Chirico as well as works by Boccioni and Modigliani. “There are no plans to sell any of these works in the future,” says the Estorick spokeswoman.

The Estorick Collection’s annual running costs in 2006 were around £310,000 ($613,000), with income of around £300,000 ($593,000). The collection “continues to be funded in part by an endowment fund created by the Eric and Salome Estorick Foundation (USA), a corporation registered in Delaware, US” according to the 2006 trustees report. In 2005, Michael and his sister Isobel injected almost £100,000 ($198,000) of their own money into the gallery, which is a registered charity. The museum has also received grants from the British School at Rome and the Italian Institute of Culture and corporate sponsorship from J.P. Morgan.

According to its accounts for the year ending 30 June 2006, the foundation has £482,000 ($953,000) in reserve.

It is not clear if the sale of the De Chirico compromises the gallery’s accreditation under the government’s Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). This is designed to protect collections from sale, among other things.

In the MLA’s Accreditation “Disposal Procedures”, it states that “decisions to dispose of items [by accredited institutions] will not be made with the principal aim of generating funds”. Last year, Bury Council in Greater Manchester lost its accreditation after the sale of L.S. Lowry’s A River Bank for £1.4m ($2.8m) at Christie’s on 17 November. Losing accreditation affects a museum’s ability to raise money from almost all public sources, including the Heritage Lottery Fund.

“The Estorick Foundation wrote to the MLA in April 2007 to inform them of the proposed sale, the background to this de-accession and the use of any funds thereby raised. MLA has confirmed that it is satisfied that the planned disposal would take place within the requirements of the accreditation scheme,” says an Estorick spokeswoman.

She adds that: “Within the requirements of the accreditation scheme it is acceptable to use any money from a disposal for future acquisitions, an area the Foundation has been unable to explore in the past. The decision to de-accession a non-Futurist work was made some time ago following a review of the collection which reinforced the trustees’ aim of focusing on the core Futurist group.”

The MLA defends the Estorick sale, saying that it “confirms that one of the accreditation requirements is that disposal must take place for curatorial reasons and that the Estorick Collection’s intended disposal meets this requirement”.

Caitlin Griffiths of the Museums Association, an independent organisation which compiles the UK’s Code of Museum Ethics, says: “We are concerned that the Estorick Collection’s proposed sale may be financially motivated, and as such it would fall outside what is allowed within the ethical guidelines on disposal. We are however in the process of a thorough review of the guidance on disposal, including considering whether there may be some very exceptional circumstances when financially motivated disposal is acceptable, and we would encourage any gallery considering such a sale to wait until this review has been completed before they proceed.”