On July 10, 2014, at Christie’s in London, a 4,000-year-old Egyptian limestone statue of an official named Sekhemka was sold to a telephone bidder for £15,762,500 (or $27,001,163, with the buyer’s premium). This sale was strongly opposed by several groups, including the UK Museums Association (MA), the Save Sekhemka Action Group, and Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry.
Why the controversy? It is because the sale violated the general deaccessioning policies of museums. Deaccession—a permanent removal of an object from a museum’s collection, usually through sale—is not undertaken lightly by museum curators. It is usually done only with artworks that are duplicated in the collection or that are too damaged for conservation or display. In good museum practice, the funds generated from the sale are used only for the improvement of the collection.
The UK Museums Association stipulates that the money raised from deaccession should only be used to improve the existing collection. In the United States, the Association of American Museum Directors’ usual standard is that artworks cannot be sold just to fix a leaky roof. The AAMD Policy on Deaccessioning, amended on October 4, 2010, specifies that “funds received from the disposal of a deaccessioned work shall not be used for operations or capital expenses. Such funds, including any earnings and appreciation thereon, may be used only for the acquisition of works . . .”
Cultural heritage is not an asset to be liquidized and monetized. Nor is deaccessioning a sustainable way of generating funds.
Does the Northampton Museum’s expansion of gallery space meet these stipulations? Probably not, as 55% of the proceeds (about £8m) will be used for a major extension project, which will double the size of the exhibition space and create new education and commercial facilities. But this is not a collection improvement project.
What is more alarming is that the Northampton Museum is only one of the many deaccession cases. In 2013, the Croydon Council was criticized for selling twenty-four pieces from the Riesco Collection of Chinese porcelain to raise £8m for refurbishing Fairfield Halls, its local arts center. This sale prompted the Arts Council England’s (ACE) Accreditation panel to remove the Croydon Museum’s accreditation status. Similar issues surrounded the attempt by the Tower Hamlets Council in East London to sell a Henry Moore sculpture in order to ease the financial problems it faced following massive government funding cuts.
In the United States, in February 2014, the Maier Museum at Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA, was sanctioned by the AAMD for selling George Bellows’ painting Men of the Docks (1912) to the National Gallery of Art in London for $25.5 million for the purpose of easing the college’s financial difficulties. The American Alliance of Museums criticized the sale as “a flagrant, egregious violation of our Code of Ethics for Museums, showing total disregard of an important tenet common to the charter of all museums . . .” Similarly, in June, the Delaware Art Museum auctioned off a William Holman Hunt painting, Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1868), for $4.25 million which it used to pay outstanding debt and build its operating endowment. The museum was subsequently sanctioned by the AAMD, which means that no AAMD member museums will loan works of art or collaborate on exhibitions with the Delaware Art Museum.
It is my understanding that there were no legal issues in all of these sales. The objects were not bound to any donor stipulation that the museum never sell the object. The issue here is not one of legality, but one of public trust. Public museums are stewards of cultural heritage. Their mission is to protect and preserve the cultural artifacts with which they are entrusted.
Cultural heritage is not an asset to be liquidized and monetized. Nor is deaccessioning a sustainable way of generating funds. Although the sale of the Sekhemka statue brought $27 million, it is probably a short-term financial gain. If the Arts Council England (ACE) revokes the accreditation status of the Northampton Museum and it loses ACE funding, this sale might prove to be costly in the long run. According to BBC, the ACE granted the museum £166,000 in 2012 and £69,000 in 2014. This is probably why the Art Fund, a charitable supporter of art institutions, decried Northampton’s decision as “financially as well as morally harmful.”
I imagine how heartbroken the New Yorkers were when Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849) left the city for Arkansas’s Crystal Bridges. For those who long loved looking at the masterpiece before entering the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor at the New York Public Library, the deaccession of the Durand painting must have been like losing a family treasure.
Perhaps that was the sentiment that Andy Brockman, an archaeologist working with the Save Sekhemka Group, felt, when he said that the Sekhemka statue “was gifted for the enjoyment and education of the people. It is held in trust for the future. This is selling the family silver.”
What can the public do to prevent the museums from deaccessioning public treasures? Please let SAFE know by commenting below.
(Featured image from Getty Images GB).