. . . But Couldn’t Because the Art Market Crash Got in the Way
Buried in the New York Times’s regional New Jersey section is a must-read story for all sides of the deaccessioning debate. It is a morality tale of the Plainfield Public Library whose once wealthy town had a lot of valuable art in storage but neither means nor the inclination to display it. With job seekers overflowing the computer terminals, the library decided to sell to pay for the costs of maintaining the library, not to buy art.
Yes, yes, it’s a public library not an art museum with scholarly mission. But it is a public institution that held art in trust, so there is sufficient similarity. But we’re getting ahead of the story:
“It was sort of a lose-lose situation,” said Joseph Da Rold, who grew up in North Plainfield and has been the library’s director for 15 years. The cost of the insurance and security that would be required to display the Homers in public was more than the library could afford, he said. “It would have been way too expensive even to bring them out of the vault, much less to hang them here.”
But then the Art Institute of Chicago came calling, asking to borrow the Homer watercolor for an exhibition last year. That set off a chain of events that occasioned a long discussion at the library about its history and its mission; raised its hopes about how it might finish some long-delayed projects; led it into rarefied precincts of the fine-art auction world; and ultimately gave it a sobering glimpse of what happens in the stratospheric reaches of the economy when even the wealthy start tightening their belts.
The first surprise came when the Homers were appraised before the watercolor traveled to Chicago. Based on earlier appraisals, the library’s entire art collection was insured for $2 million. But while the paintings were hibernating in the bank vault, prices for American art had been climbing. Now, the library learned, the watercolor was valued at $2.5 million, the oil at $5 million; these two paintings combined could be worth five times the library’s annual budget. The insurance bill jumped to $25,000 from $3,800 a year.
And so the painting was dispatched to Sotheby’s, and scheduled for auction in December, with a minimum price of $2 million. “And then what happened is the stock market went south, and took the art market with it,” said Mr. Da Rold, who attended the auction with several trustees.
Nobody bid. “We were stunned,” Ms. Robinson said. “Here we thought we had one little cash cow named Winslow Homer, and then it doesn’t sell.”
The library did make some money from other items it had also decided to sell — $150,000 for a marble bust of George Washington by Hiram Powers; and $123,000 so far for some colonial currency and old coins that had been sitting for decades in a safe-deposit box, and that the library has been selling through another dealer. After the auction, Sotheby’s had 60 days during which it could sell the Homer to a private buyer for $2 million. A few bargain-hunters came calling, but the clock ran out last week with no takers. [ . . . ]
Under its agreement with the library, Sotheby’s cleaned the painting, and will store and insure it for the next three years; the library is also scheduled to receive a hand-painted reproduction that it plans to hang inside the entrance. If the art market rebounds, the trustees may decide to put it up for auction again. As the economy has faltered, library usage has climbed — computer usage was up by third last year, circulation was up 10 percent, and more people keep signing up for literacy classes — and the list of needed improvements keeps getting longer.
A Portrait of a Library Testing the Art World (New York Times)