Seeing a Cash Cow in Museums' Precious Art

via New York Times

MÜNSTER, Germany — The director of the art museum here dreads the idea of losing some of his town’s biggest cultural attractions. He worries about a Henry Moore sculpture that has been on exhibition for almost 40 years, knowing it could vanish along with Renaissance panels and Eduardo Chillida benches in a sale to settle government debts.

“There’s an expression in German: ‘Don’t sell your family silver,’ ” said the director, Hermann Arnhold of the Westphalian State Museum for Art and Cultural History. “Would you sell the story of your family? If you sell important artworks, that means selling a part of your history.”

Yet, what once seemed unthinkable is suddenly palatable in Europe: The continent’s art treasures more and more are losing sacred status as an inheritance belonging to the people.

With government subsidies to public institutions being cut back, museums in countries like Britain, the Netherlands and Germany need the income from art sales to close budget gaps, make repairs or finance expansions. That has led to fears that masterpieces will disappear from public view to adorn the living room walls of a Saudi prince or hedge-fund billionaire.

Hermann Arnhold, director of the Westphalian State Museum for Art and Cultural History in Münster, Germany. CreditJoanna Nottebrock for The New York Times

“If you want to safeguard cultural identity, you cannot sell the best pieces of your collection,” said Marilena Vecco, an assistant professor of cultural economics at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. “This is the challenge for all museums.”

The cutbacks in cultural subsidies in France prompted lawmakers in December to raise the notion of strategic sales of works in the nation’s vast art reserves to pay for acquisitions.

Some museums in Britain have already shed important works, including a 4,500-year-old Egyptian statue, or are arranging to sell objects to create an endowment to help offset government cutbacks. In Devon, the local council trimmed its 2015 subsidy to the Torquay Museum by $114,000, a 43 percent drop; to create an endowment, the museum wants to auction off items, including a letter by Jane Austen, that Christie’s has estimated could sell for almost $300,000.

In Germany, a sale last year of silk screens of Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando by Andy Warhol is, in part, financing a new state-owned casino. And the works now at the Münster museum may be sold to settle the debts of a failed state bank.

The Portuguese government is also weighing a sale this year of 85 works by Miró to cover the cost of bailing out and nationalizing the bank that owned them. Demand for art is high, driven by the deep pockets of the ultrarich, and the sale of a single treasure can bring in millions. The Egyptian statue sold in Britain, of the scribe Sekhemka, drew $27 million from an anonymous buyer, an amount shared by the Northampton Museum in England and a descendant of the donor, the Marquis of Northampton. Museum trade associations complain that local politicians are increasingly pressuring museum managers to turn over lists of high-value artworks that they can include in their budgets as assets.

“They treat it like some gold reserve,” said Eckart Köhne, the president of the German Museum Association, a trade group for more than 800 museums. “In the past there was general consensus that once objects belonged to the state, that it was absolute, with rare exceptions. Now they are using art to save banks or build new casinos.”

The polite word in the art world for such sales is “deaccessioning,” and it was once seen as a taboo. Yet the opportunity for large paydays has also tempted governments and institutions in the United States, despite industry guidelines discouraging sales. Last year, the Detroit Institute of Arts, then owned by the city, was able to fend off financial pressure to sell works only after major foundations pledged millions of dollars to shore up the city’s pension system.

The Delaware Art Museum last year sold a painting to help settle $19.8 million in debts, but not without repercussions. The Association of Art Museum Directors urged its members not to lend works to the institution.

Susan Taylor, the association president and director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, said the penalty was part of a broader effort “to deter institutions from selling works of art to support operations.” Such action, she said, “fundamentally compromises a museum and does not effectively address the underlying causes of financial distress.”

In Britain, the Northampton Museum was stripped of its accreditation and became ineligible for national government grants after the sale of the Egyptian statue to finance a museum remodeling. The sale drew the ire of the British Museums Association and other groups because it was not clear to them the money would actually be used for a construction project. It disapproved of using the proceeds of the sale to compensate for budget cuts by the central government. Since then, the British culture minister imposed a temporary ban on the sale to provide time to seek another solution.

The Westphalian State Museum could lose artworks like the benches by Eduardo Chillida.CreditJoanna Nottebrock for The New York Times

Other British museums are weighing sales for similar reasons, said Sharon Heal, director of the national Museums Association. Last month the association and other major funding organizations announced they would shun museums whose sales ignored ethical guidelines, calling them “a breach of trust with the public.” That would affect grants and ban loans of art to a discredited museum.

“Politicians who are thinking about selling need to realize that once a work is in private hands that possibly it will never be seen again,” Ms. Heal said.

Supporters of the sales argue, though, that there is a role for them because museums typically can display only about 10 percent of their art, and storing works is costly. Some French lawmakers, for example, are raising the prospect of selling some of the 500,000 objects in storage at the Louvre, using an American model that would limit museums to shedding duplicate works that are not part of a core collection and using the proceeds to pay for future acquisitions.

“French museums have so many pieces in their collection that they are not able to exhibit it,” said Guillaume Cerutti, chief executive of Sotheby’s in France. “Museum subsidies have dried up and the first victim is art acquisitions.”

In the Netherlands, a private foundation was created in 2012 to sell objects — what it calls “disinherited works” — online and from a storage center. These are paintings and watercolors from the reserves of institutions and a collection of antique typewriters, quills and inkwells from the Scryption, a museum in Tilburg devoted to the history of writing, which lost its municipal funding and closed.

In Münster, local authorities and art experts are still struggling to come up with a way to avert the proposed sale of about 400 works from the collection of a government-owned bank, West LB, including the pieces on display at the Westphalian State Museum. In addition to the Moore sculpture are St. John the Baptist panels by Giovanni di Paolo, valued at 6 million euros (about $6.5 million), and the outdoor Chillida steel benches, estimated at €2 million ($2.1 million), that were created as a homage to the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648.

The bank — mired in debts from investments in subprime mortgages in the United States — folded in 2012 and was rebranded Portigon AG. Still a government entity, it says it has to sell all of its assets, including its art, to repay loans from the European Union.

That has provoked a furious debate, with opposition politicians accusing the governing Social Democrats of treating art treasures as merchandise. It was in the same region, in November, that the state-owned casino, WestSpiel, established a precedent by selling two Andy Warhol silk screensfor $152 million to anonymous bidders through Christie’s in New York. Part of the proceeds will help pay for another casino in Cologne.

Norbert Walter-Borjans, the finance minister for the region, is closely involved in monitoring the Portigon sale. He contends that the artworks, as well as two Stradivarius violins, cannot legally be donated by Portigon to museums.

“What would you say if you went to your local bank to get some money,” he said in an email, “and there is a friendly clerk who answers, ‘We are sorry, but we have invested your money in a violin which we can’t sell?’ ”

While the debate drags on, visitors are flocking to the Westphalia State Museum, taking advantage of the opportunity to see the works perhaps one last time.

“People are saying they are trying to sell our art collection,” said Mr. Arnhold, the director. “So they came over to see our stars, and, well, to touch the Henry Moore sculpture.”

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4 thoughts on “Seeing a Cash Cow in Museums' Precious Art

  • April 21, 2015 at 9:07 pm
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    I am struggling to understand how the governments expect the museums to cover their debts by selling the art pieces. I find it completely wrong that invaluable pieces have been sold to cover gaps in debt and to fund something as ridiculous as a casino. What is guaranteed of the irreplaceable pieces that are sold? They belong where anyone and everyone can enjoy them, not in someone’s personal collection because the government cannot budget appropriately.

  • April 21, 2015 at 11:01 am
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    No one should sell artwork to take care of the Government, if anything they should be looking into it rather than trying to pay off the debts. Its not fair to the country to sell artwork that has shaped History. That’s a big no, what will our children learn from. Its bad enough that everything is now using technology, its just pushing the idea more. Our debt will still be there even after the artwork is gone. What are they going to do next?

  • April 14, 2015 at 12:25 pm
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    I agree with Jessica! I can’t believe they would look at selling art with this much importance as even an option. They need to find other options on how to pay off the debt. You shouldn’t be taking it away from the public just to pay off your debts!

  • April 12, 2015 at 12:39 pm
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    I do not believe it’s ethical to sell artwork to cover a government debt. Officials should be investigating the cause of the growing debt and seeking other options. It’s not fair to go after pieces of important history as means to cover ignorant decisions. What will be there next option after all art work is gone and debt is still there? A contingency plan needs to be created when borrowing money. A back up as to what is to be done if things don’t go as planned. If this continues, what will be left at the museums of art? Nothing. Nothing for the public to see, learn from, or honor. All because we couldn’t come up with a better plan of action to cease government debt that will never go away if it keeps growing at the rapid pace it is.

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