Deaccessioning: A Necessary or Elective Surgery?

Chloe Aboud.

Deaccessioning is a relatively new word used to describe an age old museological practice. The word only really began to circulate during the aftermath of The Hoving Affair, which rattled the credibility of Metropolitan Museum of Art’s professionalism in the 70s.  We have seen more and more mention of deaccessioning this past year, as just across the water, the AAMD (The Association of Art Museum Directors) stated that it would refrain from sanctioning any museum which used the proceeds from deaccessions to fund operational costs up to April 2022.

 So what exactly is deaccessioning? Why is it so controversial and how did the Met’s Hoving Affair cause such a stir?

The International Council of Museums defines deaccessioning as the act of lawfully removing objects from a museum collection – whether that is through sale, destruction (If the object is damaged beyond salvation or a threat to health and safety) or repatriation. Interestingly though, the word Deaccession did not enter public discourse before the 1970s. The synonyms withdrawn, disposed, and exchanged are substitutions found in museum inventories prior to this date. It was in 1971 that Thomas Hoving, the director of the Met at the time, and the Acquisitions Committee used the word to deflect the disposal of artworks as standard museum practice.

Diego Velázquez portrait of Juan de Pareja, c. 1650, Oil on canvas, 81.3 cm × 69.9 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The subsequent controversy surrounding The Hoving Affair arose as the monetary funds, acquired from deaccessioned artworks, were used to partly subsidise the payment of another work – Velazquez’s Juan de Pareja portrait. The intentionally driven private sale of eleven Impressionist works, purchased by the art dealer Parke-Berke in 1972 for $489,790, settled the remaining $255,861 debt of the Velazquez portrait. The justification for their sale was that the artworks were deemed to be “lesser examples of fashionable Impressionist and Post-Impressionist schools”. Under normal circumstances, this could possibly be justified, as it can be accepted that a museum will sell works in order to diversify its collection, but in this particular case, the Met did not have a leg to stand on.

An example of one of 14 versions of Claude Monet’s Falaises de Pourville, 1887, oil on canvas, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

The dramatic increase in the financial value of the works sold, completely knocks the Met’s argument that they are of lesser cultural importance. The value of Renoir’s Maison á Cagnes initially sold by the Met for $85,000, but subsequently reoffered at a Christie’s auction in New York in 1994, realising $500,000, is a cause for concern. Similarly a gifted Monet entitled Falaises á Pourville, was deaccessioned for the sum of $65,000 yet reoffered at a Christie’s New York sale May 10, 1989, only to achieve a colossal $1.3 million…

The concept that a museum is enabled to liquidise cultural heritage, is shocking. However, the practice, when undertaken sensitively and pragmatically, can serve to benefit the museum’s collection and its over-arching purpose to serve the public. Deaccessioning is highly controversial – with the practice completely condemned in France – yet many professionals in the museum industry consider the practice integral to sound collection management. Consider the number of objects in museum storage (that the public have not, and probably will not, ever see), they often greatly outnumber those on display, sometimes with over 70% of a museum’s entire collection stored away. Why not sell some of the objects in storage facilities to aid with the care and conservation of the artworks which are actively on display to the public?

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the museum industry is endeavouring to remain afloat and plan for the future – many believe it will be well into 2025 by the time the tourism industry picks up and museum visits soar once again. The circumstances in which it is deemed acceptable to sell artworks is encompassing a greyer and greyer area. Ultimately, a country’s own national legislation on deaccessioning is the only regulation which governs the practice. Notably, Ireland does not have any national legislation which controls the practice, and so, museum associations and its own collection management policy are what gage the deaccessioning parameters.

Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, c. 1480, Tempera on poplar wood.

In January, the art world welcomed in the New Year with what had already been deemed to be The Sale of 2021. This pandemic has made it all the more challenging to associate the thriving online art market with the struggling museum sector. As Sotheby’s celebrated the $92.2 million sale of Sandro Botticelli’s portrait, A Young Man Holding a Roundel, c. 1480 – which took place during a Covid-influenced online auction – the museum sector trudged through more lockdowns, resulting in temporary closures, staff cuts and not to mention controversial deaccessions…

About the Author: Chloe Aboud is an art historian, fine art connoisseur and art market analyst. She holds a BA in The History of Art & Architecture and French from Trinity College, Dublin. She also holds an MA in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. She is a member of the Irish Association of Art Historians and has also worked with a variety of private art corporations such as Art on Superyachts and ArtRatio.

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