Tiffany Jenkins: Don’t auction artistic legacy

Cash-strapped Bury Council sold LS Lowry's A Riverbank. Picture: PA
Cash-strapped Bury Council sold LS Lowry's A Riverbank. Picture: PA
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The sale of art meant for public pleasure by councils and museums to private collectors should be resisted, writes Tiffany Jenkins

Two years ago at Bonhams auction house in Edinburgh a group of paintings that included Sea Gulls and Sapphire Seas by Robert Gemmell Hutchison, a popular work featuring four children lying on a coastal bank looking out at a glittering scene, came under the hammer. The painting came from Bolton Museum and Art Gallery in Lancashire, which had acquired it directly from the Scottish artist in 1912 for £150. It sold for £120,000, a record for the painter’s work. But the piece didn’t go to another museum. It was bought by an anonymous collector.

I have nothing against private collectors; I would buy expensive paintings if I had the funds, but there is something questionable about the removal of an art work from a public space to be enjoyed by a privileged few behind closed doors.

There used to be a strong presumption against “de-accessioning” – the selling of art and artefacts from museum collections. It only happened in rare circumstances, mostly for curatorial reasons, such as when there was a duplicate – never to raise money. Under the National Heritage (Scotland) Act of 1985, the Board of Trustees of the National Museum of Scotland, for example, can dispose of artefacts only in exceptional circumstances. But times are changing. Guidelines and policies are being revised and tested, especially south of the Border. We need to note these changes, to resist them, guard against their influence.

In 2011, Bolton Council sold 35 paintings from the local museum, including Somnambulist by Millais, to pay for a new storage depot for the remaining art. In 2010, The Royal Cornwall Museum sold two Victorian paintings, each fetching about £1 million, for an endowment fund. In 2006, Bury Council raised £1.4m when it sold LS Lowry’s A Riverbank in order to fill a budget shortfall. Bury Council was then thrown out of the Museums Association – the professional body for the sector – whose guidelines restricting the sale of art and artefacts state that income from a sale should only be spent on the care or use of the museum collection. In other words, museums and the local council should not sell any item to compensate for financial mismanagement.

There was outrage when, in 2009, Southampton City Council proposed to sell Sir Alfred Munnings’s After the Race and a Rodin bronze, threatening a much-loved regional collection. The complaints were so forceful that the council reconsidered and pretty quickly found the funds elsewhere; which shows what can be achieved when people refuse to go along with such plans.

Despite public protest, however, sales continue. Croydon Council in south London has just announced its intention to sell 24 Chinese ceramics, including Ming dynasty bowls and ancient tomb models dating from Neolithic times to the 19th century, worth nearly £13m. The Conservative-run council made the decision to auction the museum collection in order to refurbish Fairfield Halls, a theatre and music venue. The Museums Association, Arts Council England and the local community do not buy into these plans. David Anderson, president of the MA and director general of National Museum Wales, said: “Croydon’s decision to sell valuable Chinese ceramics threatens not just its own reputation but that of the museum sector as a whole.”

There are good reasons museum collections should not be placed under the hammer. One is to protect the institution from the pressure that comes from the financial difficulties which are inevitable in this sector even in times of plenty. The role of museums is to conserve, research and exhibit objects for future generations, to care for the past in perpetuity for the public. Selling off collections for monetary gain “financialises” collections. It transforms objects and paintings into items with a price-tag. Their value as research material or aesthetic works is diminished.

Insulating collections from the influence of what is fashionable is paramount. It is not possible to predict what future generations will find of interest. What is significant now, was not decades ago. Birmingham Museums laments a sale in the 1950s of South Asian and Far Eastern metalwork which would have greatly interested the community today. Their collections policy wisely notes that: “it is not only fashions that change… the society which a museum serves can also change… the metalwork would have gained greatly in relevance in view of the growing contribution of South Asian communities to modern Birmingham”.

The V&A discovered it had inadvertently auctioned off a set of significant 18th-century gilt wood chairs to the then king of Libya. They had thought the chairs were 19th-century reproductions, but they were in fact from a set commissioned by Paolo Renier, the penultimate Venetian Doge, in the 18th century. By the time the mistake was realised it was too late to do anything. Not only were they no longer for sale, they had been converted into mirror frames and stools.

Disposal for financial reasons will hamper new acquisitions. The Chinese ceramics Croydon intends to sell were donated by local businessman Raymond Riesco in 1964. Had he known their fate, I doubt he would have bothered. Much of what is in our museums has been given by generous donors, usually with the requirement that the collection is kept in perpetuity for the public. Why would anyone bequeath a museum their collection now, when it is becoming increasingly evident that managers will sell it for a quick buck?

Collections are held in trust for the public, for future generations as well as those in the present. Museums should therefore only sell objects when this will better ensure their preservation, or place them in a context where they are more valued and better understood. Unless it is purposeful, curatorially driven disposal, institutions should refrain from auctioning off the family silver, or else they risk looking like shoddy salesman who have lost sight of the true value of their wares.