In the basement

May 9 2011

Image of In the basement

Picture: Victoria & Albert Museum

I said recently that I would post the occasional ‘in the basement’ story, to highlight the risks of deaccessioning. Tomorrow (Tuesday), I will be a panelist at a conference on deaccessioning at the National Gallery, London. Speakers include Culture Minister Ed Vaizey MP, Chairman of the National Trust Sir Simon Jenkins, and the director of the National Gallery Dr. Nicholas Penny. My panel is at the end of the day, in the dying-for-a-drink slot.

I suspect most of the day will be spent debating whether deaccessioning is a good or a bad thing – but the fact is that the process has begun. A large number of regional and local authority controlled museums in Britain are already selling off works.

Above is a painting in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. It is catalogued on their website as ‘attributed to Joseph Highmore’, but is undoubtedly by Andrea Soldi. (See J. Ingamells: ‘Andrea Soldi—a Check List of his Work’, Walpole Soc., xlvii (1980), pp. 1–20 for other comparable examples.)

Who's Soldi, you might ask? True, he’s not a well-known artist, and it’s a not a particularly exciting painting  (and nor am I suggesting that the V&A would ever sell it). But the point is that you can’t decide to sell something until you know what you have to sell. There are many similar mis-catalogued paintings in museum basements across the country. And we need to have a structure in place to make sure no unfortunate mistakes are made. [More below]

Let’s look at what happens in America, where deaccessioning happens all the time. The great majority of disposals are handled well, and the funds used go towards buying more interesting pictures. But, in my day job as an art dealer, I quite often come across paintings that are mistakenly deaccessioned as copies or with the wrong attribution.

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

Here's an example. The above illustration shows a painting by George Romney that was sold by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, at auction as ‘after George Romney’. The subject was identified as a copy after one of Romney’s most important full-lengths in the Frick Collection, Henrietta, Countess of Warwick and her Children (below). The estimate was £4-6,000. 

Picture: Frick Collection

We (Philip Mould Ltd) thought the Virginia Museum's picture was a bit better than a copy, and bought it. Cleaning and conservation revealed that it had been substantially over-painted, probably in the early twentieth century, and beneath lay Romney's first study or compositional arrangement for the Frick painting.

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

As you can see in the cleaned picture above there is an extra male hand in the bottom right hand corner, and a tiny sketch of a man in a brown coat. It appears that the original picture was to have included Lord Warwick, but this was then changed by Romney, and the young boy was moved further apart from his sister. The later restorer, when confronted by so many hands, had decided to turn Romney’s study into a less visually confusing ‘finished’ picture, and so added in the column and shrubbery, and made it appear as if the boy was holding his sister’s hand. There aren't many Romney studies like this that survive, and it's quite an important picture.

That is why at tomorrow's conference I shall suggest again that we need to have some sort of central panel of experts to help manage deaccessioning in the UK. The sad fact is that in some regional museums there is a dearth of specialist knowledge – the job of a curator is nowadays more about administration than scholarship. 

The panel could be formed along the lines of the government’s reviewing committee on the export of works of art and the acceptance in lieu panel. These are made up of a range experts and call in others with specialist knowledge depending on the nature of the case they are looking at. The panel would help prevent items being mistakenly sold off, and ensure that the full value of a work was realised. The committee can also help manage the disposal process nationally, for, thanks to Fred Hohler and the invaluable Public Catalogue Foundation, we now have the ability to consider individual museum collections as part of our national collection of art. 

The committee need not require legislation. It could operate rather like the Spoliation Advisory Panel, who’s decisions are not legally binding, but are by convention adhered to. Or, you could even go down a 'Big Society' route, and form a less formal, more voluntary body. 

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.