De-accession time in Delaware (ctd.)

August 11 2014

Image of De-accession time in Delaware (ctd.)

Picture: DAM

The very troubled Delaware Art Museum is continuing its picture flogging. Up next, as I reported here in April, is Winslow Homer's Milking Time, one of the museum's best-known treasures. The picture will be sold at Sotheby's auction this autumn for an undisclosed estimate, though bafflingly this article in the New York Times tells us that they're looking for a private buyer first. 

I say bafflingly because it seems the DAM is going about their de-accessions in the most hopeless way possible. They need to raise $30m to plug a financial black hole, but haven't developed a proper disposal strategy to raise the funds. They're doing it piecemeal, and badly.

It appears, for example, that with the Homer sale they'll be repeating the same mistakes which resulted in the pretty miserable failure of their previous de-accession, of William Holman Hunt's Isabella and the Pot of Basil. The Hunt sold at Christie's in London for £2.9m in June, having been estimated at £5m-£8m, and offered widely privately before the sale. In other words, it bombed, and it's no surprise that this time DAM is trying their luck with Sotheby's.

But because DAM has now telegraphed its sale process for the Homer, we can be sure that the picture's appearance at auction in the autumn will mean that it has failed to sell privately beforehand. This may make it a less attractive option for bidders at the auction, as almost certainly happened with the Holman Hunt. Equally, those private buyers offered the Homer privately before the auction date might feel that they'll wait and try their luck to buy it for half price at auction later. (This is a growing problem for auctioneers as they rush to embrace private treaty sales; there's a high chance that big-ticket pictures appearing at auction nowadays have been 'burnt' - that is, offered and rejected - before the sale. Worse yet for a client's confidence in prices and the auction house, a picture you were offered privately might be sold at auction for a great deal less in just a few months time.)

That said, Homer is much more in demand these days than Hunt, and DAM might yet make a serious dent in their target. Hopefully, in future the DAM will be more discreet and strategic in selling its pictures, if it has to. They should probably have had one single round of de-accessions at auction.

Either way, it appears from the New York Times article that the DAM is in a pretty serious mess. Here's a quote from the chief executive, Michael Miller:

“I know nothing about art.” [...] Asked to name a work at the museum that he likes, he replied: “Jeez. I never thought about that. Well, I actually like Picasso, but we don’t have any Picassos.”

And then we learn about how the DAM went about choosing which works to sell. A painstaking process involving all staff and curators? Nope:

Asked how he chose the Holman Hunt for selling, as opposed to any of the 12,500-odd other works in the museum’s collection, Mr. Miller said the process was relatively straightforward. You might assume that he met with the museum’s curators, asking them to weed out works that struck them as inferior, or too similar to other works to merit space. But the curators were never consulted. “They didn’t want to have anything to do with this,” Mr. Miller said. “And we didn’t want to bring them into this.” Instead, he deferred to the marketplace. He contacted art appraisers from Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams, and had them valuate “a very short list” of works the museum had purchased over the years.

Update - a reader writes:

The NYT article suggests that the next de accession at Delaware should be Mr. Miller which will have no impact on the collection. Then they should hire a consultant to advise on culling the collection intelligently.


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