Deaccessioning : will France be next ?

Raphael (1483-1520)
Madonna of Loretto, c. 1510
Oil on panel - 120 x 90 cm
Chantilly, Musée Condé

American museums have practiced deaccessioning for a long time. In the case of private establishments, this can be justified, although it may present a certain number of risks, among them that of selling today a work that will be direly missed tomorrow. In most European countries, objects in museums or other public institutions are considered “inalienable” and thus cannot be sold. Yet this excellent principle is now being threatened in France. Once more, after the leasing of the Louvre’s collections to Abu Dhabi, this country is about to set the wrong example. Last 23 October, the French Ministry of Culture made public an official statement requesting Jacques Rigaud to prepare a report on, quote, “the alienation of works in public collections” using the expression, “to give public collections a breather”. The technique here is taken from classic rhetoric which consists in using flattering terms to conceal, in fact, the exact opposite. When the intention is to do someone in, the last thing you give them is a breather.

Thus, the time has come to prepare for a battle which will require unflagging determination. Curators, art historians, museum lovers and defenders of French national heritage will have to stand up against what threatens to become one of the major abuses of the cultural history of this country. It is not only a French fight since tomorrow other countries could do the same. Irrefutable arguments, within everyone’s grasp, will be needed to counter those put forth by authorities for whom the collections in French museums represent simply a wad of bank notes at their disposal. We will not go over the well-known example of the “pompier” artists which today are the Musée d’Orsay’s chief attraction. Nor shall we recall other changes in taste which have sprung up over the years. These reasons have been presented time and again. It is all about finding works such as the Madonna of Loretto by Raphael in Chantilly, and which could have been sold because, not so long ago, it was thought to be an old copy. Let us retrace briefly the story of this painting : it was considered a copy until the late 1970’s, when Cecil Gould identified it without any doubt as the original, lost since the XVIIIth C., by using indisputable documentary evidence. The work was looked at with a new eye and confirmed in its obvious quality. Today it takes pride of place in the museum at Chantilly. There is no question that this painting could have been sold. After all, the original was at the Getty Museum, wasn’t it ? Except that the one in California, in light of the new-found proof, had to be reclassified. The Getty Museum today does not own a Raphael having failed to acquire the Madonna of the Pinks purchased finally by the National Gallery in London. As a matter of fact, this painting was also once considered to be only a good copy. So, let us imagine that the Raphael in Chantilly was sold, obviously at a low price, since it was not considered authentic. It would cost at least 50 million € to acquire such a painting today.

I invite the readers of The Art Tribune therefore to send us examples of works that might have been sold, if given the chance, were they to fall under the category of the proposed alienation law which we can seriously deem a tragic impoverishment of our cultural heritage. We will publish this list as items arrive.

Didier Rykner, vendredi 2 novembre 2007

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