Menu Close
Museums should follow the example of the Met and sell off stock. Luciano Mortula /

Museums aren’t havens from the market’s fickle fashions – nor should they be

Last week, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art auction loosed a slew of 17th, 18th and some early 19th century British furniture and decorative art onto the market. Over 200 lots were sold, raising more than $4m.

The rationale for the disposal, as Luke Syson, the elaborately-named Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Chairman of European Sculpture and Decorative Art, stated, was to fund new acquisitions that would “fill gaps” in the British decorative arts collection. These “gaps” apparently are in 19th century British design, an area that previous collectors and donators to the Met have had little interest in.

Many of the objects in the Met sale had illustrious provenance, having been donated to the museum over the past 100 years by major collectors including John Cadwalader and Judge Irwin Untermeyer, whose interests in 18th century British decorative art are well-known. In his introduction to the Christie’s auction catalogue, Syson had the unenviable task of both acknowledging the importance of their bequests and explaining why they were now surplus to requirements.

The Met is not alone in reflecting on the legacy of its collections. Museums throughout the US and Europe recently have taken a more strategic approach to collections management. There is more of a push to reflect changing fashions and tastes.

So last year. Christie's

Museums and the market

But many think that the museum should be a haven from the vicissitudes of fashion and the market. This is an illusion that is bound up with the idea of the museum itself.

Far from being dislocated from the art market, the museum, as Joseph Koerner and Lisbet Rausing suggest, “supports the value structures of the art market by reverentially displaying its ‘priceless’ twin rather like the gold once held in public trust against paper currency”.

This is even demonstrated by Syson’s elaborate curatorial title: not only are the objects in the museum a tangible legacy of the interests of private capital, but museum curators themselves can be equally bound up with such structures.

In Britain, there recently has been a move towards the American model of private capital filling the gap in public funding for the arts. One can even detect a kind of refeudalisation of culture in this regard. But there also has been a nervousness that the American model of large-scale sales may lead to the collections in public museums being perceived as mere financial assets.

This nervousness has become more palpable as the ideal conditions for realising those assets have crystallised over the past few years. The fiscal pressures of budget cuts following the financial crisis, in conjunction with areas of art market overheating, make for an ideal mix of demand and opportunity.

Selling off stock

American museums are often seen as having a more laissez-faire attitude to disposing of items than their British counterparts. In the UK, there is a strong presumption that objects should be retained: the Ethics Committee of the Museums’ Association has official power to levy severe sanctions on sales that don’t conform to strict rules of disposal, often withdrawing accreditation and restricting access to future funding.

But the truth is that museums in the US are equally constrained when it comes to selling their collections. The American Association of Museums prohibits the proceeds from sales being used for anything other than new acquisitions or the care of collections, and strictly forbids selling works of art to fund operating costs.

The Met’s policy clearly sets out the rationale for disposal by sale and, crucially, how the proceeds arising from the sale can be used. So the fear often cited that disposal by sale from museums is a slippery slope to a broader use of cultural assets is perhaps, at present, unfounded.

Besides, why shouldn’t the museum dispose of objects? To view the museum as a space where history stands still is to misunderstand the nature of history itself. As the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce famously said in 1941, “all history is contemporary history”.

Our history is a complex nexus of the past, the present and what we think the future might be. This inevitably involves us disposing of things that were of interest to our forebears, but we deem no longer to be of interest to us, and by extension, our descendants.

The chair worth almost half a million dollars. Christie's

The museum has also always been involved in these processes. Its structural role in the art market means it is a barometer of the economics of taste.

So it is hardly surprising that the provenance of the Met, interpolated with that of influential collectors, resulted in some spectacular results at the auction. The most expensive lot, a “George II Mahogany Armchair … c.1745-50” (estimate of $50,000-$80,000) sold for almost 10 times the lower estimate, realising $437,000.

Interestingly, the auction catalogue description of the Georgian chair drew comparison to a related armchair that had been acquired by the architect and collector Sir John Soane in the 19th century and which remains in the collections of the Sir John Soane Museum in London. It is somewhat ironic that the Met’s object is paired with its “twin” in the Soane Museum because The Soane is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, museum that prohibited the disposal of any object from its collection.

These two “twins” now represent the twin views of museums’ role in the market. One sits in London, gathering dust, while the other has raised an enormous amount of capital that will be spent updating and improving the Met’s collections. Tough choice?

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 171,100 academics and researchers from 4,743 institutions.

Register now