Historians Say the Newark Museum’s Plan to Deaccession Art at Sotheby’s Will Inflict ‘Irreparable Damage’

More than 60 scholars signed a letter demanding that the museum abandon its plans to sell works from its collection to recoup pandemic losses.

Thomas Cole, Arch of Nero (1846). The painting, owned by the Newark Museum of Art, will hit the auction block at Sotheby's.

When the Newark Museum of Art announced a plan to sell 17 objects in March, it provided few details as to which artworks might appear on the auction block. But a gradual release of the specifics has enraged some historians, including previous employees of the museum, who described the sale as a misguided attempt to monetize some of the collection’s best examples of American art, including a painting by the landscape artist Thomas Cole.

On Friday, opponents of the auction released a letter addressed to the museum’s director, Linda Harrison, demanding that she “cancel the self-diminishment and monetization of Newark’s art” because it was “inflicting irreparable damage” on the institution.

More than 60 curators and historians have signed the letter, including professors from Harvard and Yale, a former Baltimore Museum of Art trustee, and a past president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).

Among the works being offered at Sotheby’s on May 19 are examples by Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Eakins, and Marsden Hartley. Scholars said that while the entire deaccessioning plan concerned them, it was the museum’s intention to sell Cole’s The Arch of Nero (1846), an allegory of the fragility of American democracy, that raised the loudest alarm.

The auction could generate millions for the Newark Museum, which has been closed throughout most of the pandemic and remains shuttered. The Cole painting alone is estimated to go for somewhere between $500,000 and $700,000.

Harrison has defended her museum’s decision, saying that the deaccessioning plan was “carefully and thoughtfully considered” and represented a loss of less than one percent of the museum’s 130,000 artworks.

“The influence of Europe on American culture is an extremely well-told story at the Newark Museum of Art and museums around the country,” she said in a statement, “and we will still be able to share extraordinary examples and tell those stories going forward.”

The Newark Museum. Photo: Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons.

The Newark Museum. Photo: Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons.

Harrison also said that her decision adhered to guidelines from two leading professional organizations, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the AAMD. Last year, the AAMD temporarily loosened restrictions on the industry’s deaccessioning policies to allow the sale of artworks to pay for collection care, a broad designation that covers everything from curators’ salaries to HVAC. (Previously, museums were encouraged to sell only artwork that was duplicative or no longer in line with the museum’s mission, and required to use the proceeds for future art acquisitions.)

But critics of the Newark Museum’s deaccessioning plan have claimed that the cultural institution lacked the proper expertise to determine which objects were appropriate for the auction block. That includes William L. Coleman, a former associate curator of American art at the museum, who is now the director of collections and exhibitions at Olana Partnership in upstate New York.

The Arch of Nero has been an icon of that institution since it was acquired,” said Coleman, who claimed the museum has not had a specialist in 19th-century American art since he left two years ago. “It’s personally painful to go down the list of objects for the Sotheby’s sale and see the best Thomas Moran and the best Thomas Eakins on the block. These works are important parts of the museum’s educational mission.”

Marsden Hartley, Shell, from the Newark Museum of Art. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Marsden Hartley, Shell, from the Newark Museum of Art. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The Newark Museum is not the first major institution to experience backlash to its deaccessioning plans. In the year since the rules were loosened, museums including the Brooklyn Museum and the Everson Museum in Syracuse have approached auction houses to sell their artworks as a form of pandemic relief. The Everson Museum raised $13 million from the sale of a single Jackson Pollock. The Brooklyn Museum generated nearly $20 million with its October auctions of works by Claude Monet, Helen Frankenthaler, Lucas Cranach, and others.

But it was at the Baltimore Museum of Art where opponents of director Christopher Bedford’s gamble to sell major works by Clyfford Still, Andy Warhol, and Brice Marden gained the most steam. Before the sale was called off, critics and former trustees raised their voices in opposition; promised gifts totaling $50 million were also put on hold. One of those gifts came from Stiles Colwill, former BMA chairman and a signatory to the Newark Museum letter.

What makes Newark’s deaccession attempts unique, according to Coleman, is that some objects for sale—specifically, the Cole and Moran works—were hanging on the walls when the museum went into lockdown.

“They are picking objects directly from the galleries,” he said. “This is not a matter of curators going into storage.”

A museum spokesperson said that the paintings were already scheduled for removal to storage nearly two years ago, long before plans for the auction crystallized.

Speaking on behalf of other signatories, Coleman said that the Newark Museum’s plans represented “a worrying national trend.”

“It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face,” he said. “These artworks are essential stuff.”

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