German Broadcaster Selling Off Collection to Cover Debts

Key pieces of modern art could be at risk.

German public broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) has admitted that it plans to sell off some of its art collection to help reduce its operating deficit, Monopol reported.

The announcement comes less than a week after publicly-owned German casino operator Westspiel sold Andy Warhol’s Triple Elvis (Ferus Type) (1963) and Four Marlons (1966) for a combined $151.5 million (€120 million) at Christies New York (see “Epic Christie’s $852.9 Million Blockbuster Contemporary Art Sale Is the Highest Ever“).

In the months leading up to that previous sale, numerous politicians and cultural figures in Germany warned that such a move by a public entity would set a dangerous precedent, allowing others within the country to offload what have been deemed popularly—though not officially—as pieces of German cultural heritage (see “Outrage Erupts over Casino’s Sale of €100 Million Warhols“). With WDR’s announcement coming so soon after the sale, many fear that such a slippery slope has indeed been created.

The broadcaster’s spokesperson Ingrid Schmitz said that WDR has ordered an audit of its 600-piece-strong collection. “We are currently in the process of deciding which pictures, and in what form, we are going to put on the market,” she told the DPA.

The collection consists primarily of modern German art from the 1950s and 1960s. The paintings were acquired for modest sums to decorate the broadcaster’s television studios. For example, a painting by the German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was acquired in 1956 for the remarkably low sum of 600 Deutsch Marks. Today the painting is valued at a high five-figure sum in euros.

Last year, WDR director Tim Buhrow announced austerity measures, which included the possibility of selling off portions of the broadcaster’s art collection as a short term solution for lowering the firm’s deficit. Medium and long term solutions include plans to lay off 500 employees by 2020.

WDR CEO Ruth Hieronymi emphasized that, despite the company’s difficult financial position, the broadcaster was only considering the sale of individual artworks. “Under no circumstance will the deaccession of the entire collection take place,” said Hieronymi.

Meanwhile, some members of the board have demanded a public discussion on the planned sale, seeing as the acquisition of the artworks was publicly financed by license fees.

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