The Met Museum Is Deaccessioning $1 Million Worth of Photos and Prints to Fill a Revenue Shortfall Caused by the Pandemic

Works by Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Frank, and a trove of Civil War photos are all hitting the block.

Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke (C. II.5) (1965). Photo: Christie's Images Ltd.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art will sell 219 prints and photographs to help plug a $150 million revenue shortfall resulting from the pandemic.

The works, all duplicates from its collection, will be offered in three sales at Christie’s, starting next month, the auction house said today. The group includes pieces by Robert Frank, Roy Lichtenstein, and Frank Stella. It’s expected to raise between $904,600 and $1.4 million altogether.

More significant works have also been earmarked for sale, but the museum is mum as to what they are. Tobias Meyer, a private art dealer and former star auctioneer at Sotheby’s, is among those advising the Met on its deaccessioning, the museum confirmed.

Robert Frank, Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955 (1955). Photo: Christie's Images Ltd.

Robert Frank, Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955 (1955). Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd.

In selling the art, the country’s largest museum is taking advantage of a rare two-year window, through April 2022, during which the Association of Art Museum Directors has permitted members to sell art in order to raise money for collection care, as opposed to only for acquisitions. Most of these sales have sparked public outcry. Last year, the Baltimore Museum of Art ended up pulling major artworks by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still, and Brice Marden from Sotheby’s after revealing it wasn’t in financial trouble, but rather wanted to diversify its collection. 

The Met’s director, Max Hollein, has taken another approach. We have significant endowment funds that are earmarked just for acquisitions,” Hollein told Artnet News earlier this month. “So it seems appropriate to use the proceeds of our regular deaccession program to support salaries for collection care staff in this exceptional year. And that’s what we are doing.” 

The Met’s annual deaccessioning program is around $10 million, Hollein said. “The works we use for deaccessioning are duplicates, multiples, copies of the same thing [we have] in better quality.”

Frank Stella, Stella_Star of Persia II, from Star of Persia Series (Axsom 2) (1967). Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd.

First up will be a dedicated online auction of 168 lots of Civil War photography, held from September 24 to October 7, according to Christie’s. A group of 16 lots, including seven images by Frank from his book The Americans, will be offered in a live photographs auction on October 6. The rest of the works are prints and multiples, which will be featured in the online sale “A Graphic Century: 1875-1975,” from November 4 to November 18.

Estimates start at $1,000, Christie’s said. A photograph of a military bridge by George Barnard is estimated at $1,500 to $2,500. The most expensive lot is Frank’s photograph U.S. 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas, 1955, estimated at $150,000 to $250,000, according to Christie’s. 

Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion, an Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements, 1887 (1872–85). Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd.

The Met holds one of the largest and most celebrated collections of Civil War photographs at any public institution, most of which were acquired in 1933 from the collection of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion, the auction house said.

They are all from the 1860s, and most depict the views of static objects, such as military bridges, trains, and hospitals. There may be an image of a battalion posing for a shot—but no battle scenes. That’s because a photographer would use a large box camera on a tripod and, from start to finish, everything was done out in the field, so most images are of static scenes, rather than combat.

“Nothing happens during the action,” said Darius Himes, international head of photographs at Christie’s. “It’s rooted in the landscape tradition.”

The category comprises a niche market, where works are valued as much as historical records as for their aesthetic qualities, said Himes.

The 16 works in the live auction include pieces by Brassai, Frank, Andre Kertesz, Eadweard Muybridge, and a book of photogravures published by the New York Camera Club in 1900.

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