By Jennie Nadel

What is deaccessioning?

screen-shot-2018-07-06-at-2-44-45-pm.pngThe process of eliminating a piece of work from a museum’s permanent collection is known as deaccessioning. According to the  Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), museums should develop collections to benefit present and future generations. Deaccessioning a work of art from a museum’s collection occurs through transfer of ownership either to another institution or by individual sale, exchange, or grant. The AAMD cites two reasons a museum should consider deaccessioning a work: either to improve the quality or appropriateness of the collection to fit the future goals of the museum, or to acquire other works of art that will better suit the needs of the collection. The AAMD strictly states that works should not be sold for operation costs, endowments, or any reason other than the benefit of the collection. Museums that do deaccession artworks are often scrutinized and frequently criticized if the works selected for sale have a particularly compelling history or the proceeds from the sales are expected to be spent on anything other than collection development. As Michael DeMarsche, founder of DeMarsche Museum and Art Consultancy, and Bob Ekelund, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Auburn University, write, it is the smaller museums with limited resources that get criticized the most, despite their dire financial situations. They argue that there are serious benefits that can come with deaccessioning works of art, namely the preservation of the museum. Some works from museums’ collections might never be on display and remain in storage anyways. This, coupled with the high price of maintenance and declining donations, creates an enticing combination for museums to seriously consider deaccessioning as a financial option. DeMarsche and Ekelund’s  suggestions propose more lenient policies on deaccessioning than the current suggestive guidelines held by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD)

The case of the Berkshire Museum – Initial

The Berkshire Museum, located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, was founded in 1903 by Zenas Crane. Crane was a third-generation owner of Crane & Company, a family-owned paper manufacturing company. The Berkshire Museum’s collection ranges  from fine art and sculpture to natural science specimens to ancient artifacts. In July of 2017, the museum announced that it would sell 40 works from its permanent collection, including pieces by 20th-century artist Norman Rockwell. The museum also announced that they did not intend to use the works to accession new pieces; rather, they planned to use the proceeds to save the Berkshire from permanently closing. They initially proposed a $40 million endowment to renovate the building and upgrade the exhibitions. This statement was met with an extreme backlash, especially from the AAM and AAMD.

Many criticized the museum’s choice, stating that it would dissuade future donors from giving to a museum that does not hold its art in the public trust and set a precedent for other museums that it is acceptable to do the same. Others feared that the loss of these pieces from the museum would result in artworks falling into private hands never to be seen or enjoyed by the public again.

In a similar case to that of the Berkshire’s, the Delaware Art Museum sold four paintings, including Winslow Homer’s Milking Time (1875) and Andrew Wyeth’s Arthur Cleveland (1946), from its collection in 2014 in order to pay off its $19.8 million debt. After the June 2014 sale of William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1868) the AAMD took retaliatory measures by asking other institutions to cease collaboration and loans with the museum. The Delaware Museum lost its accreditation, making it harder to receive loans from other museums and isolating it from the museum sphere.

In October of 2017, just weeks before the works were meant to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s, Rockwell’s three sons, Thomas, Jarvis, and Peter, as well as other Plaintiffs sued the Berkshire Museum in hopes to halt sales of the museum’s artwork by obtaining a temporary restraining order. The case was scheduled to be heard on November 1, 2017Ultimately, the judge ruled in favor of the museum, stating that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to challenge the sale of the artworks.

Agreement with the Office of the Attorney General (AGO)

On February 9, 2018, the Berkshire Museum met with the Office of the Attorney General (AGO) to file a petition with the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (SJC), seeking litigation between the AGO and the Berkshire. The agreement between the AGO and the Berkshire Museum established a mutually recognized plan to ensure the future of the museum. Rather than sell 40 works like the museum had initially intended, the SJC authorized the Berkshire to sell no more than 19 works acquired before 1932 to meet its financial goal (Read the full press release here). Following the press release, on February 16 the Berkshire Museum’s Board President, Elizabeth McGraw, released a statement defending the stance of the Berkshire Museum, titled “Securing the Future Together.

The Outcome


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On May 23, 2018, the museum’s Norman Rockwell painting Blacksmith Boy (1940) sold for $7 million at Sotheby’s. It had thus far been the highest price for a piece sold out of the museum’s collection. Among the 13 other works already sold were pieces by artists such as Francis Picabia and Alexander Calder.

In May, the museum auctioned off five works of art for $42 million, falling short of their $55 million goal. Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1959) was sold to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, a new museum in Los Angeles planning to open in 2022 and founded by Star Wars creator, George Lucas for an, for an undisclosed amount estimated at around $29.3 million. McGraw stated, “we are disappointed but not surprised to fall short of our expected goal by close to $13million..”, but added that these actions will help moved the museum forward by securing its future.

Despite the court ruling authorizing the sale and the settlement with the MA Attorney General’s office and Rockwell heirs, as of May 27, 2018, the museum is facing penalties from the AAMD, which voted to penalize the museum for its sales. The sanctions would be effective immediately and request that the 243 members of the association refrain from working with the museum, similar to the decision the AAMD made on June 18, 2014, sanctioning the Delaware Museum for deaccessioning art to cover an outstanding debt and build on its operating endowment.

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In recent news, the Berkshire Museum announced on June 25th its plan to sell nine more works from its permanent collection followings its failure to meet its $55 million target. Seven deaccessioned works will be sold privately through Sotheby’s, among them Dancing Torpedo Shape (1932) by Alexander Calder and The Last Arrow (1868) by Thomas Moran. The two other pieces from the collection are Qing Dynasty pieces that will be sold during Asia Week sales in September 2018 they include a Coromandel screen and a blue and white vase with a dragon motif.

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About the Author: Jennie Nadel (Johns Hopkins U., Class of 2018) is a Summer Intern at the Center for Art Law. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University majoring in History of Art with a double minor in Museums & Society and Visual Arts. She will be pursuing her M.A. in Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute in the Fall.