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Sotheby’s, citing organizational error, reiterates that Baltimore Museum of Art auction will proceed Wednesday

After initially saying Tuesday afternoon that the controversial sale of two paintings from the Baltimore Museum of Art had been indefinitely postponed, Sotheby’s stated later that the auction Wednesday would proceed as planned.

The sale has been under scrutiny since it was announced Oct. 2 that the museum would deaccession — or sell — three paintings: Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper,” Clyfford Still’s “1957-G” and Brice Marden’s “3” to raise $65 million to fund diversity initiatives.

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“Earlier today, a Sotheby’s representative stated in error to The Baltimore Sun that our sales on behalf of the Baltimore Museum of Art had been postponed," Sotheby’s spokesman Darrell Rocha wrote Tuesday afternoon in an email. He said the Still and Marden sales would proceed at auction, with the Warhol deaccessioning still slated as a private sale. "The representative had incorrectly referenced our auction on behalf of The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem in response to the Sun’s inquiry, which has been postponed.”

The sale of the three works has been controversial since it was announced. Museum director Christopher Bedford said proceeds of the three paintings would be used to make the museum more accessible to an under-served audience by eliminating ticketed exhibitions, opening the museum one night a week and buying artworks by women and artists of color. Some funds also would be used to increase salaries for staff members, some of whom are paid $13.50 an hour.

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Critics contend that the artworks are a vital part of Maryland’s cultural assets and that shortcuts were taken in the process by which the three works were put up for sale.

The off-again/on-again auction announcements capped a tumultuous day Tuesday in which the influential Association of Art Museum Directors issued a statement that could be construed as withdrawing its support of the BMA’s auction plans.

Bedford had said that the deaccessioning resulted from relaxed guidelines adopted by the association in April. A series of resolutions authorized museums for the first time to use proceeds from the sales of artworks to care for the museum’s collection.

On Tuesday, the association issued what it described as a “clarification” of those resolutions. Though the clarification did not name the BMA, it appeared to address some of critics' concerns.

For example, Bedford has said several times that unlike many museums nationwide, the BMA is not in financial straits as a result of the pandemic. Instead, he has described the motivation behind the auction as “mission-driven.”

Brent Benjamin, president of the association’s board of trustees, wrote in the clarification that the resolutions adopted in April “were explicitly intended to assist museums facing a financial crisis due to the impacts of the pandemic ... and its unpredictable impact on the economy, charitable giving, and opportunities for people to gather in groups—all of which affect art museum audiences, operations, and finances."

He continued:

“I recognize that many of our institutions have long-term needs—or ambitious goals—that could be supported, in part, by taking advantage of these resolutions to sell art. But however serious those long-term needs or meritorious those goals, the current position of [the association] is that the funds for those must not come from the sale of deaccessioned art.”

The association is an oversight group not unlike accrediting agencies for colleges and universities. It has the power to sanction and publicly shame institutions for perceived ethical lapses, but no legal authority to dictate which artworks museums can sell or how it can use proceeds from those sales. It cannot delay, postpone or halt Wednesday’s auction.

A museum spokeswoman said BMA officials aren’t interpreting the association’s most recent statement as discouraging the auction.

“In ongoing private discussions and public statements, the [association] has affirmed that the BMA’s plans are in compliance with the current deaccessioning resolutions and guidelines," the museum wrote in a statement.

“Proceeds from the sale of artworks by the BMA will be put toward new acquisitions as well as toward the direct care of the museum’s collection as outlined in the public policy on our website. This use of proceeds is allowed and in accordance with the resolutions passed in April 2020.”

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