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The Delaware Art Museum is Under Fire for Selling Art

The Delaware Art Museum is Under Fire for Selling Art

This past June The Delaware Art Museum was formally sanctioned by the Association of Art Museum Directors, which has asked its members not to lend artwork to Delaware or assist with its exhibitions.

The sanction came one day after the museum sold a painting from its collection, William Holman Hunt's "Isabella and the Pot of Basil." Museum trustees say that the sale was the only way to help settle a $19.8 million expansion debt and enhance the museum's endowment. The museum is now confirming that it will sell two more works. The first, Winslow Homer's "Milking Time" (1875), It will be offered in a Sotheby's auction this fall, unless they find a buyer first. Gerret Copeland, the chairman of the Delaware Museum board, said."That is our plan of attack. If we find a private buyer, it will go sooner."

The second work to go on sale is Alexander Calder's "The Black Crescent," a mobile which arched gracefully above the museum's double-height East Court. Timothy Rub, the president of the museum directors group, as well as the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said, "They're just cherry-picking the best things in the hopes they get to where they need to be. If, as with the Holman Hunt, they fall flat on their face, it's going to be a double tragedy."

Christie's, entrusted with the Holman Hunt, estimated its value at $8.4 million to $13.4 million, but the painting sold for $4.25 million, only half the low estimate, evidence of the riskiness of auctions.

The situation in Delaware could be seen as a cautionary tale about the perils of overexpansion. The museum double its space in 2005, but in spite of that the museum's membership is down to 1,600 from a peak of about 3,000 in 2001, said Jessica Jenkins, a museum spokeswoman.

Selling artwork to fund operations is viewed as self-defeating since museums are supposed to safeguard art for future generations, not cash in or out, and as the sale of the Holman Hunt showed that sales don't always go as hoped. Michael Miller, chief executive and director of the museum, said, "We're disappointed that it didn't go for more, and so is Christie's and everybody else. Is it a fair price? Who knows? I don't know."


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