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Seeing a Cash Cow in Museums’ Precious Art

Doreen Carvajal, Seeing a Cash Cow in Museums’ Precious Art, The New York Times, 4 April 2015

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.

“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.

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.

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