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Deaccessioning

Former trustees and donors ask state to block sale of three important works by the Baltimore Museum of Art

Letter asks Maryland attorney general and secretary of state to investigate planned deaccessioning of a Warhol, Still and Marden

Andy Warhol, the Last Supper (1986) Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art

Former trustees, donors and other supporters of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) have asked the Maryland state attorney general and secretary of state to block the institution from selling paintings by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still and Brice Marden. They also request that state officials launch an investigation into what they argue are conflicts of interest related to the sales.

The museum plans to sell the three paintings through Sotheby’s to raise $65m for care of its collection, salary increases for underpaid staff members, diversity and equity initiatives, and acquisitions. Warhol’s The Last Supper (1986) is to be sold privately, and Marden’s 3 (1987-88) and Still’s 1957-G are scheduled for auction on 28 October.

The sales were made possible through a decision by the Association of Art Museum Directors to lift its prohibition on using proceeds from art sales for anything other than purchasing more works. Under relaxed rules adopted in April, museums can use the proceeds for “direct care” of their collections without fear of sanctions. The moratorium on such sanctions extends to April 2022 with the aim of helping museums cope with the financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

But in their eight-page 14 October letter to Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and Secretary of State John C. Wobensmith, the 23 signatories argue that the museum’s plan is a breach of the public trust. They particularly cite the decision to sell the Warhol, The Last Supper from 1986, privately rather than at auction, and “without even any competitive bid or sale proposals from multiple auction houses”.

Update: By 19 October the letter had been signed by over 100 more people, including Stiles T. Colwill, former chairman of the museum's board of trustees, and Arnold Lehman, a former director of the BMA and director emeritus of the Brooklyn Museum. And the lawyer organising the signatures submitted a separate letter to the board asking trustees to reverse their decision to deaccession the works.

Sotheby’s estimates that the Still will sell for $12m to $18m, and the Marden, for $10m to $15m. That indicates that the museum is hoping to reap around $40m for the Warhol. “However a comparably-sized Warhol Last Supper painting was sold in November 2017 by Christie’s, at auction, for $60,875,000,” the letter states.

“This significant disparity in price is extremely troubling, and leads one to conclude, independent of the merits or lack thereof of the deaccession, that the BMA did not sufficiently exercise its fiduciary duty in valuation of the work and seeking competition to maximise the sale proceeds,’’ the former trustees, donors, committee members and docents write. “Instead, this iconic Warhol painting is likely being sold, or already has been sold, at a bargain-basement price.”

Competitive sales proposals from two or more auction houses for the Still and Marden would also have increased the BMA’s profits, the letter argues. The signatories also note that the sales are being undertaken while “the BMA’s finances have remained steady, and the BMA’s staff has not been subject to layoffs, belying any sense of urgency to a sale, or any need to bypass normal due diligence”. And they assert that the deaccessioning decision poses a conflict of interest for curators, who they say would stand to benefit from salary increases financed by the proceeds from the sales.

The museum released a statement disputing that allegation. “The lowest paid hourly wage earners within the institution—none of whom were involved in determining the works for sale— are the only individuals for whom a specific pay increase has been defined,” it says. (The museum’s director, Christopher Bedford, told The Art Newspaper this month that museum guards, for example, would see their pay rise from $13.50 an hour to $20 an hour by July 2022.)

“Members of HR [human resources] and senior leadership are working to map out additional positions in need of pay increases in order to achieve equitable compensation across the institution,” the museum adds. “Moreover, key senior curatorial positions at the BMA are endowed, making these positions minimally impacted by any changes in salaries overall.”

The BMA also defends its agreement with Sotheby’s, saying that it had determined in concert with experts at the auction house “that a private sale would be the most effective format for the sale of The Last Supper, and that the works by Marden and Still should go to public auction”.

“Both formats are commonplace approaches to the sale of art, and these decisions are driven by an awareness of market value, an understanding of the quality and singularity of the works themselves and knowledge of the existing pool of prospective buyers,” it adds.

“We are confident that there are no legal issues relating to the BMA’s deaccession of works,” the museum states. It adds that it has reached out to the state attorney general and secretary of state to furnish them with information about the sales.

The letter’s signatories also make a case for retaining each of the paintings. The Warhol Last Supper, they write, “a perennial favourite of BMA visitors, is the most important work” of the multiple paintings by the artist that were acquired by the museum in the late 1980s and early 90s. Acquiring the 1986 work “boldly centred the BMA’s contemporary collection around a queer artist, a ground-breaking achievement in diversifying art history,” they add.

As for the Still 1957-G, the letter notes that the painting was a gift from the artist, and that his works are not well represented in museum collections. “Because Still’s paintings have price tags that run in the tens of millions, one can say with almost 100% certainty that if the BMA deaccessions its single piece by the artist, the museum will never again represent the work of this major Abstract Expressionist, who lived in the state of Maryland,” it says.

Marden’s 3 is also the sole painting by the artist in the museum’s collection, the signatories write, and Marden is still living. “By selling a work of art during an artist’s lifetime, a museum might negatively impact the market of that artist’s work—a consequence that is inherently antithetical to the BMA’s role of supporting art and artists,” the letter says. The museum counters that it owns 16 remaining works by the artist on paper.

“We look forward to your investigation of these matters and urge prompt action before the October 28 sales of these iconic artworks are finalise and the State of Maryland loses a significant part of its cultural heritage,” the letter concludes.