The Brooklyn Museum is selling 12 deaccessioned works at Christie’s this week to raise funds for the care of the museum’s collection amid financial strain exacerbated by the pandemic shutdown. The artworks, which include significant pieces by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Gustav Courbet, are estimated to reap $2.3 million to $3.5 million in total. Ten pieces will feature in Christie’s Old Masters and European Art sales today, October 15, as part of the auction house’s “Classic Week”; the remaining two are being offered online from October 1 to October 20.
Funds from the deaccessioned works will go to the direct care of the Brooklyn Museum’s holdings — such as storage, conservation, and framing — as well as the salaries of those who oversee that care, including conservators, curators, and registrars. Traditional museum practices hold that a museum may only deaccession work in order to buy new work. However, this April, the rules were relaxed: seeing the financial pressures that museums were sustaining during the pandemic, the Association of Art Museum Directors announced that museums could, until April 2022, deaccession work to “pay for expenses associated with the direct care of collections.” In an announcement last month, the Brooklyn Museum became the first institution to announce its plan to utilize this change.
“This is something that is hard for us to do,” Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak told the New York Times. “But it’s the best thing for the institution and the longevity and care of the collections.” Curators chose the 12 works to be deaccessioned from the museum’s collection of over 160,000 objects and the museum’s board of trustees unanimously approved the selection. “While it is always difficult to part with a work by any artist, the curators have been very careful to select works that, while very good examples of their kind, will not diminish our collections by their absence,” Pasternak said.
The top lot of the group is Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder’s oil-on-panel painting “Lucretia” (c. 1526–1527). The highly desirable portrayal of the Roman heroine is estimated at $1.2 million to $1.8 million, a substantial portion — about half — of the estimate for the works in total. “Lucretia” is the only work by Cranach the Elder in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, leading Martin Gammon, author of Deaccessioning and its Discontents: A Critical History, to wonder “whether its inclusion is more driven by a monetary than a curatorial imperative.” The painting will be sold in the Old Masters sale along with pieces by Donato de’ Bardi, Francesco Botticini, Giovanni dal Ponte, and a work attributed to Lorenzo Costa.
Works by Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Charles-François Daubigny, Hendrik Willem Mesdag, and Philip Wilson Steer will be included in Christie’s European Art sale. Courbet’s “Bords de la Loue avec rochers à gauche” (1868) is one of the priciest works in the auction with an estimate of $400,000–$600,000, followed by Corot’s “Italienne debout tenant une cruches” (c. 1820s) at $200,000–$300,000. The least expensive work of the 12 is Jehan-Georges Vibert’s “Spanish Bullfighter with Flowers”, which is valued at $20,000–$30,000 and is being sold online alongside a work by an unnamed artist from the Netherlandish school.
The Brooklyn Museum’s move to deaccession these works has been met with mixed reactions in the art world, drawing the ire of several art critics and scholars. “You’re an art museum in probably the wealthiest city in the world,” Tyler Green tweeted. “If you can’t raise a measly $40M to maintain your institutional integrity at the same time the wealth of billionaires in America has increased by at least $700B in six months, you have the wrong leadership.”
The Brooklyn Museum is one of several institutions to deaccession important works this fall under the relaxed rules, including the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Everson Museum in Syracuse, which sold a Jackson Pollock painting at Christie’s last week. The Pollock garnered $13 million, toward the lower end of an estimate of $12 million – $18 million. However, a note on the auction house’s website states that there has been a challenge to the deaccession, and the sale will not been finalized until the challenge is resolved.