UK deaccessioning

Edward Burne-
Jones (1833-1898)
The Triumph of Love, 1871
Watercolor and Body
on panel - Each panel : 30.5 x 16.5 cm ou 30.5 x 14 cm
On sale by the Watts Gallery
Photo : Christie’s

In France, the danger which could have threatened museum collections in the form of deaccessioning seems to be fading from sight. The Minister of Culture, Christine Albanel, has in fact just stated that inalienability “is an excellent principle which needs to be strengthened”, following a series of negative conclusions from a report on the subject submitted by Jacques Rigaud, former high government employee and former president of an association to develop art funding by businesses.

In England, on the other hand, the situation seems to be worrisome. The Watts Gallery in Campton has confirmed that it will finally auction off (London, Christie’s, 5/6/08) two paintings from its collection, Jasmine by the Victorian painter Albert Moore and The Triumph of Love by Edward Burne-Jones (ill.). The decision was not taken by the museum in order to buy other works (a nonsensical move since it is devoted to XIXth century English art and what could be more English than these two artists ?) but instead to pay for construction work on the building.

The Watts Gallery’s announcement comes at a time when the Museums Association, whose role is to define ethics for museums in the United Kingdom, has just drawn up a new policy authorizing museums to sell off works in certain cases. The ink on the print is barely dry (the press release was dated 25 February), that these rules, which offer severe guidelines for sales and which encourage above all depositing or selling to other public collections, are already proving their ineffectualness and the dangers that this entails for museum collections. Indeed, they specifically state that it is unacceptable to “dispose” of a work for financial reasons or when the sale takes place outside of the public domain. These two criteria may be subject to review “in exceptional circumstances” in the exact terms of the Museums Association. In this case, what are the exceptional circumstances ? Furthermore, the sale must be within the framework of a clearly defined collection poliy, it should be unlikely to damage public trust in museums and should not run contrary to the long-term interest of the public. None of the above conditions seems to apply here. It is significant that the Internet site Artguide, which lists English public collections, points out that these two paintings are among the major masterpieces of the collection.

Thus, it is very surprising that the Museums Association should have approved this move. There is a notable difference in this case between France and the United Kingdom : in the latter, one finds curators that are in favour of selling works in their museums. Take for instance the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sandy Nairne – who is also vice-president of the Museums Association – who stated recently in The Guardian that she was in favour of these new measures. Fortunately, voices have already risen in protest against this short-sighted policy, among them Jonathan Jones, a journalist at The Guardian, who, in his blog, develops similar arguments to those we have defended here ourselves.

We hope that a real debate will be opened in the United Kingdom on the subject and that art historians as well as museum curators will join forces in denouncing this mistaken policy. The public, and not only the English public, has everything to lose in the sale of such important paintings.

Didier Rykner

Didier Rykner, samedi 1er mars 2008

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