Daniel Grant looks in the Wall Street Journal at Orange County Museum’s decision to sell its plein-air paintings privately to a single collector by contrasting that sale to this one:
the Wilmington Library in Delaware recently announced its intention to sell at Christie’s auction house its portfolio of 14 N.C. Wyeth paintings that illustrated the Daniel Dafoe novel “Robinson Crusoe.” Maybe one collector will buy all 14 paintings, but that’s not likely. The library had made overtures to the nearby Brandywine River Museum, which is devoted to illustration art in general and the Wyeth family in particular, but museum officials “didn’t feel they were in a position to expend this amount of money at this time,” according to the library’s director, Larry Manuel.
In most cases, museums prefer going to auction. Whatever criticism these institutions receive for selling objects only increases if they don’t do it that way. Take, for example, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., a museum devoted to contemporary art that sold 207 of its older artworks at Sotheby’s, raising $67.2 million. There was some discussion at the board level of selling pieces directly to other museums or through art dealers, said Louis Grachos, the Albright-Knox’s director, “but in the end, it just seemed like going the auction route was the safest and wisest choice.”
Certainly wise in this case, but why safest? “We were under a microscope, and people were looking for any reason whatsoever to attack us,” he said. “Going to public auction made all our actions transparent. No one could claim that we were pursuing back-room deals.” […]
The method of disposing of deaccessioned objects needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and museum directors fearful of public criticism might want to broaden their outlook. The Albright-Knox was probably right to take its disparate objects to auction, picking the right time and the best way to maximize earnings, while artworks that ought to stay together, such as the Wilmington Library’s N.C. Wyeths, call for a perhaps less lucrative “friendly” sale to another institution.
How to Sell A Museum Masterpiece (Wall Street Journal)