Nearly two dozen art lovers are asking top Maryland officials to block the Baltimore Museum of Art’s proposed sale of three iconic and arguably irreplaceable artworks. They warn that Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper" is at risk of being disposed of “at a bargain-basement price.”
The letter was sent Wednesday night to Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and Maryland Secretary of State John C. Wobensmith. It cites anomalies ranging from an alleged conflict of interest to the apparent lack of a competitive bidding process in choosing Sotheby’s Auction House to handle the sale.
In response, the BMA said it has broken no laws and violated no ethics codes in the “deaccessioning,” a museum’s decision to remove artworks from its permanent collection and put them up for sale.
The letter is protesting the Oct. 1 vote by the museum’s board of trustees to sell the three works to fund diversity initiatives, including staff salary increases.
The letter asks the officials to halt the planned private sale of the Warhol painting as well as the Oct. 28 auction of Clyfford Still’s “1957-G” and Brice Marden’s “3.”
“There were irregularities and potential conflicts of interest in the sales agreement with Sotheby’s and the process by which staff approved the deaccessioning,” the letter says. “There are important questions regarding whether the BMA has breached the public trust.”
Leading the list of signatures were the names of Laurence J. Eisenstein, a former BMA trustee and chair of the museum’s contemporary acquisitions committee and Constance Caplan, former BMA board chairwoman.
Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Frosh, said: “We typically don’t comment on complaints to our office or actions we may or may not take in response to complaints.”
Wobensmith did not respond to a request for comment.
Because museums traditionally act as stewards for cultural treasures held on behalf of the public, decisions made by these institutions are overseen by state attorneys general.
The letter points out that the BMA has received significant funds from state taxpayers, including $11.2 million toward a multiyear $28 million renovation that wrapped up in 2015. If Frosh were to conclude that the BMA’s board of trustees had acted illegally, he could seek to block the sale by filing a lawsuit and asking a judge for an injunction.
When the sale was announced earlier this month, museum director Christopher Bedford said the three pieces were expected to fetch around $65 million.
But the letter claims that “The Last Supper” alone could have been auctioned for that amount — if the BMA had engaged in a competitive bidding process.
The BMA received a guaranteed minimum price of $40 million for the monumental Warhol, the letter claims. It describes the painting as “a perennial favorite of BMA visitors” and “the most important work” in the BMA’s collection by the Pop artist.
Warhol made multiple paintings of “The Last Supper." In November, 2017, a comparably sized version was sold for almost $61 million by Christie’s Auction House, according to the auctioneer’s website.
“This significant disparity in price is extremely troubling,” the letter says, “and leads one to conclude ... that the BMA did not sufficiently exercise its fiduciary duty in valuation of the work and in seeking to maximize the sale proceeds.”
In addition, the BMA plans to auction off the only artwork it owns by Still, who lived near Westminster between 1961 and 1980.
“Because Still’s paintings have price tags that run in the tens of millions," the letter says, "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.”
The BMA’s statement is silent as to whether it engaged in a competitive bidding process. It said only that “the BMA has worked with Sotheby’s on numerous occasions, as have institutions across the United States, to great success.”
The proposed sale is just the most recent in a series of sweeping changes that Bedford has instituted since becoming the BMA’s director in 2016. He is attempting to make the museum more welcoming and accessible to a diverse audience and artists.
Proceeds from selling the pieces by Warhol, Still and Marden would create a $54.5 million endowment for the care of the collection. Interest from that endowment totaling roughly $2.5 million annually would be used to increase staff salaries, eliminate admission fees for special exhibitions and offer evening hours. In addition, $10 million would be set aside to acquire more works created by women and artists of color.
Some of Bedford’s previous decisions have been controversial, including a 2018 auction of seven artworks for $16.2 million that included two less significant Warhol paintings. Though the letter never names Bedford — it refers to him only as the museum’s director — it represents the first significant public criticisms of his management style.
The letter claims that the museum engaged in an ethical infringement by asking curators to vote for a sale that would increase their own salaries. The letter says the curators’ unanimous recommendation was a key factor in securing approval for the sale from some board members.
“The Director of the BMA placed the curatorial staff in an untenable position where they could not avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest as they could directly benefit from the sale of the works,” the letter said.
In its statement, the BMA called the conflict of interest allegations “unfounded," adding that specific pay raises have been identified only for the security guards who now are paid $13.50 an hour and other low-paid staff members who did not vote on the potential sale.
“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 statement said. “Moreover, key senior curatorial positions at the BMA are endowed, making these positions minimally impacted by any changes in salaries overall.”
The letter states that it “strongly supports” the museum’s goals of increasing diversity and inclusion. But it says the funds to support the new acquisitions and diversity programs could have been achieved with standard fundraising practices.
“We hope that the Board will reverse its decision to deaccession these works while there is still time to do so,” wrote Eisenstein, a Washington attorney, in an email.
“If the sale of these iconic artworks is finalized, Maryland will lose a significant part of its cultural heritage.”
This news was included in our weekday morning audio briefing on Oct. 16. Here’s how to listen.