Can’t a museum sell an artwork in its collection?

Museums and cultural heritage institutions actively acquire art but can they sell it just as easily? The National Gallery of Canada has sparked a debate over this very question with the announcement that it will be selling a painting by Marc Chagall at auction on 15 May 2018

According to Director and CEO, Marc Meyer, the gallery in Ottawa has decided to sell Chagall’s oil on canvas ‘The Eiffel Tower’ (1929) to fund the purchase of a neoclassical masterpiece by Jacques-Louis David. ‘Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment’ (1779) was donated to the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Quebec in 1938.

Recently, Meyer became aware that a foreign museum sought to purchase the Old Master painting. “We then understood that the risk to Canada of losing this national treasure was real, adding urgency to the matter”, Meyer stated. Faced with this impending threat, the gallery’s board of trustees voted in December 2017 to sell the Chagall and use the proceeds to fund the new acquisition.

The Canadian gallery’s decision may come as a surprise to art professionals and museum practitioners in Europe where deaccession and disposal of artworks held in public collections is tightly regulated. “It’s practically impossible for a national gallery, certainly in the U.K. and in France… to deaccession or dispose of, meaning sell or give away or exchange, any work from the national collection,” assistant director of the Institute of Art and Law, Alexander Herman, explained. Legislation limits deaccessioning to specific circumstances such as where works are duplicates or so damaged as to be useless (British Museum Act 1963), can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students or other members of the public (Museums and Galleries Act 1992) or to transfers between national museums.

On the other hand, Herman wonders whether the UK is too conservative in its deaccessioning policy and might perhaps benefit from the example set by its Canadian cousins. UK museums hold millions of objects in their collections but only a fraction of these can be kept on display. This creates storage headaches and limits what the public can enjoy access to. “What is the benefit of that for a national collection?” Herman questioned.

Chagall’s ‘Eiffel Tower’ is expected to fetch between US$6-9 million when it goes under the hammer at Christie’s New York.

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