Two Victorian paintings sold by an English museum

1. Herbert James Draper (1854-1920)
The Mermaid, 1894
Oil on canvas - 120 x 217.5 cm
Sold by the Royal Cornwall Museum
Photo : Christie’s

6/8/10 – Deaccessioning – Truro, Royal Cornwall Museum – In Europe, the Netherlands is one of the few counties to practice, rarely but still regularly, what is known as deaccessioning, that is when a museum sells its works (see news item of 29/7/07). There is no equivalent French term, but would correspond to the expression “desacquisition”.

The United Kingdom also avails itself of this procedure (see news item of 1/3/08) and the June auctions at Christie’s London which saw the sale by the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro of two very important Victorian paintings is another alarming example of this insidious practice.
The first, The Mermaid by Herbert James Draper (ill. 1), sold in London for 937.250 pounds on 16 June 2010 ; the second, Slavery, in a beautiful Egyptian frame (ill. 2) and initially offered at a London auction on 15 June at an estimate of 2 to 3 million pounds, did not reach the reserve price but was purchased after the auction for an undisclosed price, probably close to the lower estimate.

2. Ernest Normand (1859-1923)
Slavery, 1895
Oil on canvas - 184 x 307 cm
Sold by the Royal Cornwall Museum
Photo : Royal Cornwall Museum

There is an “ethical” code in the United Kingdom, issued by the Museum Association which groups all of the British museums and their personnel. Usually, an institution is supposed to ask the professionals for their advice when it wishes to sell a painting. The vote in this case was an affirmative one claiming notably that the establishment absolutely needed the funds “to ensure the long term financial stability of the museum collections”, that these were “exceptional circumstances” and that the works for sale were not part of “the heart of the collections”.
These arguments, which in any case alone are not enough to justify such a drastic solution, can be quickly countered when one looks closely at the context and history of the museum. In a press release issued before the auction, the establishment explains that for the last five years it benefited from a government program providing aid to the regions, called Renaissance in the Regions, allotting additional funding for its management. The program will end in April 2011 and, the museum adds, there is no guarantee that it will be replaced by equivalent funding. The “exceptional circumstances” therefore would seem, in the worst case scenario, to revert to the situation before the existence of this government program when the question of selling paintings had never come up. The money from the sale today is to be placed in a fund and only the interests can be used. This is, as explained by Tiffany Jenkins in an article in The Independent [1], (through which we learned about these sales), in fact about selling works to pay the cost of upkeep, a custom which even American museums, used to the practice of deaccessioning, severely prohibit themselves from doing. As for the fact that these two canvases are not part of the heart of the collection, the embarrassed justification for the choice of works to be sold (which corresponds more or less to an explanation that the high amount needed might indeed “decimate the collection”) proves that it is in fact the individual value of the paintings, since “only” two items could be sold, which constituted the main criterion.

Clearly, the works in question here are among each artist’s most important ones. As Christie’s points out in its entry on Draper : The Mermaid, exhibited in 1894 when the artist was thirty years old, was “his most ambitious work until then and his first popular success”. The subject (we point out here notably John Waterhouse’s on the same theme) and the treatment make it emblematic of Victorian painting. Christie’s press release announcing the auction stated in fact that Slavery by Ernest Normand, was the highlight of the Orientalist sale.
Finally, we would like to mention that the museum holds notably paintings by Frederic Leighton, Elisabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, the latter having also illustrated the Mermaid theme. By selling these two paintings, the museum has severely deprived its collection of Victorian art.

This sale is all the more shocking as these works had been donated to the museum at the beginning of the 20th century. The fact that the donor’s heirs gave their approval does not mean it should have automatically been accepted. How can the Royal Cornwall Museum still hope to benefit from the generosity of collectors if they cannot be sure that their donations will be kept for future generations ?

Didier Rykner, vendredi 6 août 2010


[1] Tiffany Jenkins, “Don’t put a price on our national treasures”, The Independent, 26/7/10.

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