Another proposed deaccessioning rule

By Felix Salmon
January 11, 2010
Judith Dobrzynski has come up with her own version of the Ellis rule when it comes to museums selling off their art. Adrian Ellis's rule is quite elegant:


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Judith Dobrzynski has come up with her own version of the Ellis rule when it comes to museums selling off their art. Adrian Ellis’s rule is quite elegant:

You can deaccession and spend the money on whatever you want – a new roof, working capital, education programs, or even a boffo night out with your chums on the board — provided that you ensure that the institution or individual to whom you sell commits in some binding form to equal or higher conservational standards and equal or higher public access.

Dobrzynski’s proposed alternative has two parts. The first is that any museum wanting to sell art first would need to argue its case before an “impartial arbitrator”, someone “schooled in art, art law and nonprofit regulations”. Given the heat surrounding the deaccessioning debate, I don’t actually believe that there is anybody impartial on this front, so this part of Dobrzynski’s test might be very hard to implement fairly.

Then there’s the second part:

Most important, as part of any deal permitting the sale of art, the de-accessioning museum would have to offer the works to other museums first. If it received no offers, it could sell the pieces via a public auction — and any American museum would then have the opportunity to match a winning bid if it promised to keep the work in a public collection.

Is this realistic? Would auction houses agree to such a deal, whereby the winning bidder might win the auction but still lose the piece in question? I asked Christie’s, who said that although such deals haven’t been seen in the US, they are reasonably common overseas: in the sale of the of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge collection in Paris in February 2009, for instance, several museums exercised just such a right and acquired works for their collections.

I suspect that cultural norms would make the first such sale quite difficult in the US, but that eventually both auction houses and their clients would learn to live with them. On the other hand, that could take some time, if Dobrzynski is correct and her rule makes deaccessioning nearly impossible.

Essentially, Dobrzynski here is taking the Kimmelman rule — that museums should get first dibs on any deaccessioning sale — and beefing it up with two extra layers: first arbitration, and second the option to buy in the wake of a public auction. Personally, I think that the Ellis rule is still the best option, since it puts the focus where it belongs — on the art, rather than on the museum. Both Dobrzynski and Kimmelman would let art disappear from a museum into private hands, never to be seen again; Ellis wouldn’t. I wonder whether Christie’s could find a way of putting an Ellis binder on works before auctioning them.

(As ever, Donn Zaretsky is the first place to go for more on this subject.)

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