August 20, 2014
Judith H. Dobrzynski

If someone helps another person commit a crime, he’s an accessory to the illegal act and probably guilty of an infraction. What about an ethical violation?

The question is becoming increasingly relevant in the art world as the Delaware Art Museum deaccessions works of art to pay off its debt and, as first conceived, built up its endowment. That, of course, is a violation of the ethics standards of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which states: “Funds received from the disposal of a deaccessioned work shall not be used for operations or capital expenses.” AAMD sanctioned the Delaware museum in June, soon after it sold William Holman Hunt’s “Isabella and the Pot of Basil” at Christie’s in London.

Christie’s didn’t seem to suffer from that case, but it was vilified as a vulture by some (including me) when it appraised some art works held by the Detroit Institute of Arts last year, as the city considered their sale as part its way out of bankruptcy.

Winslow Homer's 'Milking Time'
Prints available @ The Delaware Museum

The threat to the DIA collection has subsided, but the Delaware museum recently confirmed speculation, driven by their removal from its galleries, that Winslow Homer’s “Milking Time” and Alexander Calder's “Black Crescent” mobile will go next. They’ll be auctioned this fall if not sold privately first.

Sotheby’s seems to have those consignments, but it’s hardly inconceivable that a dealer would be asked to help a museum sell art for the wrong reason. Aside from Delaware, a few years back Brandeis University almost sold art from its Rose Art Museum, but backed down under pressure. And the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery recently sold an ancient Egyptian statue at Christie's in London in July for £15.8m to pay for an expansion and promptly lost its accreditation by Arts Council England. Before the sale, the International Council of Museums said the sale “goes against the Council’s ethics.” The temptation seems to be increasing.

Should a dealer take the business if a museum comes calling?

“It’s entirely up to the dealer,” said Robert B. Simon, president of the Private Art Dealers Association in the U.S. “I wouldn’t do it, and every dealer I know would follow the museums’ code of ethics.” But PADA has no code ethics, full stop, so there’s nothing to prevent it. Nor is the issue mentioned in the bye-laws of The British Antique Dealers' Association.

Over at the Art Dealers Association of America, the code of ethics is also mum on the topic. Executive Director Linda Blumberg said that “everyone was appalled” by the Detroit and Rose situations, but that the issue has not been discussed by the ADAA board. “We’ve been caught a bit short because in every dealer’s mind, this is sacrosanct,” she said. “Every dealer wants the works they sell ultimately to go to museums.”

But is that enough? Maybe if dealers spelled out that they will not sell works if that sale violates ethical strictures – actually turning down potential business – museum trustees would think again before they made that call. It would be one more bit of resistance from people they work with on a regular basis, instead of the trouble-making press, which has nothing, really, at stake.  

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John R. Walker
August 20, 2014
judith the art newspaper had a report on the significant risks for museums that start turning their collections into something resembling trading stock : The Art Newspaper, No.213 May 2010, p.24 “Risks of deaccessioning” Museums in the US regularly trade up by selling lesser works of art to buy better ones. But art sales to pay for operating expenses are banned by Museum Association guidelines. A few recent deaccessioning decisions that would have let museums do just that could imperil the wider museum community, in the critical but overlooked area of accounting, warned Stephen Urice, an associate professor at the University of Miami law school. The preferential accounting treatment rules could be ‘jeopardisted’ if such practices continue, he said. In 1990, the US Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), which sets standards for prepared financial statements, proposed new accounting rules for museums. The regime would have required museums to include the appraised value of their collections as a capital asset on their balance sheets. Museums would also have had to treat the value of art donations as income. The American Association of Museums strenuously fought the proposal, saying it would be too costly to comply with, would overstate a museum’s assets available for capital and operating expenses, and could mask a museum’s financial difficulties. In response, the FASB scrapped the proposal but imposed certain requirements. To be able to exclude the value of art donations from income, a museum’s collections must not be held for financial gain, and must be subject to a policy that sales proceeds will be used only to buy other works. Recent deaccession decisions ‘create a risk that FASB will reconsider’ its preferential treatment of museums, Urice said, and the museum community must therefore strictly enforce deaccessioning standards. ‘The recession is not a time’ for museums to take on ‘a new lobbying effort’ against a change in accounting rule, he warned delegates.


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