Does Selling Art Really Pay Off?

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In the wake of the worldwide financial crisis, is art still an investment worth holding onto? Or is the payout from selling a valuable work too tempting to refuse? As the economy teeters and budgets constrict, museums and institutions around the country are considering the dilemma of selling art to pay the bills–setting off heated debates about  the moral and social pitfalls of viewing art as an untapped financial resource instead of a priceless public good.

Such was the case this summer, when, just weeks after flooding destroyed much of the University of Iowa’s campus, Iowa Board of Regents member Michael Gartner asked for an appraisal of Mural, Jackson Pollock’s 8’x20′ painting and the crown jewel of the school’s museum. (The piece was donated by Peggy Guggenheim herself.) Media outlets from the Des Moines Register (article not available online) all the way to Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal caught wind of the affair and sounded the alarm. Could a sale be on its way? How dare university officials sniff around this magnificent piece as if it were a piggy bank waiting to be smashed open! Were they seriously considering selling part of the public’s property when insurance and FEMA funds were already on their way?

After almost two months of silence, the Board of Regents finally stated once and for all that the painting would not be sold; no further explanation was given. It could have been that the administration was merely curious about the painting’s value, and looked into it at the most inopportune time possible–or that the condemnation was so vehement that the regents retreated, tail tucked between their legs.

The idea of selling, trading, or auctioning parts of a collection–a practice known as deaccessioning–is more common than we think. Museums often look to clear out lower-quality works in order to purchase new ones or to simply free up space for the rest of their collections. As art buyer Lisa Hunter said on her blog, “If you could trade four mediocre Renoirs for one great Matisse, wouldn’t you do it, too?”

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which establishes moral and ethical standards for its 190 member museums, has set down guidelines for museums wishing to trim or adjust their collections. Art should be sold or auctioned only for the benefit of the rest of the collection, and proceeds from that sale should be used only for the augmentation of the current collection. These practices ensure that mutual benefit is extended to the museum and the public, for whom the art and the museums exist.

The association is adamant that deaccessioning not occur “in reaction to the exigencies of a particular moment”–a moment like, say, flood damage to the museum’s governing institution.

But the idea of selling Mural did actually find some support. Felix Salmon, financial and art writer for, reasoned that “some paintings belong not to ‘the people of Iowa’ so much as to the people of the world, and belong in a world-class collection. Which, frankly, the University of Iowa Museum of Art isn’t.” Does such an important work really belong in a small community? On the other hand, isn’t it unfair that a handful of art elitists should decide who has access to great art?

Somewhat less snobby was the reasoning of Gilbert E Schill Jr. and Jacob H. Rooksby, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education(subscription or online pass required). “If colleges were not allowed to sell what they own … institutional progress and the fulfillment of the colleges’ missions would be impeded … The [public property] argument necessarily fails because it knows no end.” Schill and Rooksby consider a school’s mission to be that of education and overall well-being, not of holding onto art collections as untouchable holy relics.

A case in point is the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. Last year the gallery’s administrators decided to auction off several of its priceless antiquities, saying that they fell outside the gallery’s “core mission” of modern and contemporary art. The gallery made a killing; its prize piece, the early Roman sculpture Artemis and the Stag, was projected to sell for around $6 million. The final bid was for more than $28 million. In total, almost every Albright-Knox piece sold made at least three times its pre-auction estimate, netting the gallery more than $90 million.

A short time later, the museum announced a campaign to expand its facilities that included designs from a “world-renowned architect.” According to the AAMD guidelines, it isn’t allowed to use its auction earnings for the new building, though the timing is suspicious to some observers. But the most disturbing facet of the sale wasn’t the possibility of padding out the building fund. It was that Artemis and the Stag, a rare masterpiece, was purchased by a European private collector, meaning that it would perhaps never again be in the public eye.

It’s reasonable to assume that the same thing could have happened to Mural had it been put on the auction block. But due to the surrounding circumstances, the backlash against the Iowa Regents was so virulent that, in the words of Press-Citizen columnist Bob Elliott (article not available online), regent Michael Gartner was “verbally tarred and feathered as if he’d come out against baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.”

Paradoxically, Elliott goes on to name Gartner as the most important figure in the Iowa City art scene precisely due to the emotional rhetoric in support of the Pollock’s place in the community. Even Gartner conceded in the Chronicle (subscription or online pass required) that very few people were even aware of the painting’s existence before this controversy cropped up: The publicity for the museum and for the painting itself was priceless.

But all this analysis may be moot in the face of the world’s current financial crisis. Many of the museums that opted for deaccession were lured by the art market’s out-of-control prices paid for even minor works. For the past 10 years, the art market has been driven onward and upward, with many buyers coming from the financial field. (Lehman Bros. was a particularly enthusiastic collector.) Now that so many companies are tightening their budgets and the United States is in the throes of an official recession, the breakneck buying has dropped off. The art world’s previous feeding-frenzy atmosphere, which threatened to suck works off the wall like a vacuum with its promise of easy money (and lots of it), has lost some of its power. Some remaining art dealers and even gallery owners find the slowdown beneficial overall. For so long, the dominant dialogue had been about art as an investment: Now the talk can return to the art itself.

Image courtesy of the University of Iowa Museum of Art.

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