Museums Send Deaccessioned American Art To Auction, While One Sells Privately For New Acquisitions

  • April 20, 2021 12:19

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Childe Hassam, Flags on 57th Street, Winter 1918. Estimate: $12,000,000 - 18,000,000. Property from The New-York Historical Society, Sold to Support Museum Collections.
Childe Hassam, "Woman Cutting Roses in a Garden." Estimate: $1,000,000 - 1,500,000. Property of The Newark Museum of Art, Sold to Support Museum Collections.

Pandemic-induced impacts on museums, many temporarily closed for months to over one year, include shrinking revenue. Museums directors estimated that their institutions would be losing the equivalent of 35% of their annual operating income in 2020, according to an October survey by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). Museum deaccessions have since been ticking up with the spring sales in New York offering up European paintings and prime examples by historic American artists from Childe Hassam to Georgia O'Keeffe.

U.S. museums including the Newark Museum of Art, the New-York Historical Society, the Brooklyn Museum, and others are selling a trove of artworks this season, falling within a two-year period in which museum association guidelines have been relaxed to allow for financing "direct collection care" from art sale proceeds during the current crisis.

One major new deaccession sale is the New-York Historical Society's iconic Hassam "flag" painting "Flags on 57th Street, Winter 1918" which is estimated to bring $12m-$18 million at Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern art evening sale. The Newark Museum is also letting go of two of its Hassam works, including "Woman Cutting Roses in a Garden," (1889) estimated at $1 million - $1.5 million in Sotheby's American Art sale, along with O'Keeffe's "Green Oak Leaves" (est. $500,000-$700,000).

Estimated to bring $1m. - $1.5 million, Mary Cassatt's seldom-seen oil on canvas "Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother's Shoulder (No. 3)" (1900) is also in Sotheby's American art sale. It is from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum which is selling another tender mother and child scene aptly-titled "Thoughts of the Future" by Hugues Merle (French, 1823-1881) in Christie's April 21 European Art sale.

The Brooklyn Museum has already weathered blowback from fall sales of blue-chip works and Old Master paintings such as Lucas Cranach the Elder's "Lucretia" that hammered down for $4.2m at Christie's. The deaccessioning "goal is to amass a $40m fund that would generate $2m annually for collection care at the museum," reported The Art Newspaper.

Last month, news broke of a private sale of Alma Thomas's (1891-1978) “Alma’s Flower Garden” (circa 1968) from the Greenville County Museum of Art (GCMA) for $2.8 million to an anonymous buyer. In this case, the museum used the sale proceeds for new acquistions, including another work by the same artist.

A statement from the Greenville, S.C., museum noted that “the agreed upon price was 2.8 million, exceeding Thomas’s auction record by $200,000. A stipulation of the sale was confidentiality. The buyer’s identity is not known to the GCMA.”  

Adding that its "deaccession and subsequent sale were in keeping with the museum's, the American Alliance of Museums’, and the American Association of Museum Director's longtime policy of using funds from deaccessioned works only to support additional art purchases and were not related to the temporary AAMD guidelines."

“Alma’s Flower Garden” had been acquired for $135,000 in 2008. Part of the funds realized from its sale were used to purchase a later work by Thomas, "untitled (Composition in Rainbow Colors)," from 1977, for $600,000 from Berry Campbell Gallery in New York, according to Culture Type. This new acquisition was painted by Thomas in the last full year of her life, and it embodies the major coloristic themes pursued by the then 86-year-old artist throughout her career of abstract experimentation.

Thomas was the first Black female artist to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. A major traveling retrospective of her work is set to debut at the Chrysler Museum of Art in July 2021.

With the sale proceeds, the GCMA also purchased 4 other works by African American artists, including Beauford Delaney, Hughie Lee-Smith, John Wilson, and Hale Woodruff. A Mary Cassatt pastel, a David Drake stoneware Poem Jar from 1840, and Jamie Wyeth's "Catching Pollen" enamel and oil on canvas from 2012, rounded out the acquisitions.

In 1984, the GCMA collection was valued at $1.3 million and today, with around 5000 works of art, it is valued at more than $100 million, according to the museum, which is currently closed for renovations.

Mary Cassatt, Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother's Shoulder (No. 3). Estimate: $1,000,000 - 1,500,000. Property from the Brooklyn Museum, Sold to Support Museum Collections.
(detail) Alma Thomas, “Alma’s Flower Garden,” circa 1968 (oil on canvas). Greenville County Museum of Art
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