Purchase Story

The Ups and Downs of Deaccessioning

The Young Collector

At the time of this writing, it’s the middle of summer in a mostly boxed-up house with two bored small children whose entertainment choices seem to be digging in the dirt, riding a tricycle in circles on the deck, reading, coloring, watching whatever PBS is showing, and seeing what sort of cataclysmic explosion they can provoke in the other people living in the house. (Guess which choice is most popular?) So maybe it’s just us, but it seems like a lot of life is just about repeating yourself and waiting for someone, somewhere, to finally just listen to what it is you are saying.

Work is no different. Last year at the annual American Association of State and Local History conference in Detroit, Andrew and two of his Winterthur classmates presented a panel called “Pricing the Priceless: An Introduction to the Antiques Trade for Museum Professionals.” This summer they got invited to repeat that message at the Association of Midwest Museums’ annual conference in Des Moines, Iowa.

There is little that is more repetitious than the drive from Ohio to Iowa, but Andrew broke it up with a couple of nights in Springfield, Illinois, where he appraised a collection for a retired University of Illinois employee, which involved English china, American firearms, a marvelous collection of early glass—and 700-plus photographs and one full notebook of notes. When he finally got to Des Moines, Andrew met with Jodi Evans, the registrar at the State Historical Museum of Iowa, for what was easily one of the highlights of his trip—a tour of its collections storage. He viewed the masterpiece sand bottle by Andrew Clemens, 15" high and with all kinds of detailed decoration and imagery, including George Washington on his white horse. Just staggering. Find us on Facebook for links to more about Clemens and his works, photos, and a 360-degree video of the bottle.

The thing about repeating yourself is that you get good at it. So the presentation went wonderfully well, and the crowd was so large that they ran out of seats. That evening, they visited Salisbury House, a 1920s Tudor Revival mansion with one of the best hors d’oeuvres spreads Andrew’s ever experienced. The next day he drove up to the Wisconsin Dells to visit clients and then drove the 12 hours home, accompanied by an old favorite of Jim Dale reading Harry Potter (not all repetition is bad) as well as fresh eggs and raspberries from his hosts.

We’ll take a break from repeating ourselves, so in brief, the panel talked about how museums can and should familiarize themselves with the antiques and art marketplace. For full review, see our column in the November 2016 issue or see (www.maineantiquedigest.com/stories/closing-the-gap/5991). There was some philosophizing about why museum pros should do this (better care for a collection, appropriate insurance, increasing a collection, being a better resource to the local community for their questions about what they’ve found in Grandma’s attic) and some nuts-and-bolts how-to information about getting appraisals, buying from auction houses and dealers, selling deaccessioned items, etc.

Selling deaccessioned items is a sensitive, explosive topic. We and most of our colleagues in museums believe firmly that a museum collection is best cared for when actively cared for—when added to as possible, when properly preserved, and when honed and focused by the deaccessioning of objects that are not central to the mission. Many people in the public seem to feel that museums are supposed to keep objects forever.

Why on earth would a museum want to get rid of something? It’s actually really simple. Museums do not have endless resources. Every object in a museum uses valuable resources every single day that it resides in the collection. It requires storage space, insurance, and conservation. If an object is truly part of a collection, it requires staff to catalog, study and interpret, and just keep track of it. Many, many people do not realize this, but even an object that is given to a museum costs the museum money. Some gifts can in fact be burdensome on an institution.

Our inner cynics equate object donations to museums with giving someone a cell phone for Christmas: “Here’s a $400 gift that will cost you $1200 over the next year!” That’s not fair in many ways, we know. Donations are often wonderful, and many museums depend on them as the only way they can add to their collections. But because of this reality, over the last ten to 15 years, many museums have found that they have needed to become pickier about what they say “yes” to. Many museums simply don’t have the resources to be good stewards of a steady flow of objects that don’t advance their mission. As we’ve said before, modern life is leaving all of us buried beneath a wave of stuff, because there’s simply more of it out there, and that’s just as true for museums.

As the flow of “stuff” continues and as the market has taken several big hits on museum endowments, many museums are finding that being pickier isn’t enough, that using more discretion doesn’t address the volume of things they’ve already accumulated over the years, such as things that may not be relevant to their mission and things that are aging and need the expensive attention of experts. Museums find themselves needing to contemplate deaccessions. This officially involves removing an object (or objects) from the collection and then, typically, selling it, ideally to generate funds that can be used to add to or care for the museum’s mission-relevant collection.

The presentation in Des Moines was a little different this time around because Andrew had recently assisted a small midwestern museum with a very large collection that had (as well intentioned and lovely as the gifting was) become something of an albatross. The collection was large (at nearly 500 objects), and diverse (a global collection with Asian, African, South American, European, and Native American examples), and it had been there since the 1930s. This single collection consumed well over half of the museum’s total storage space. Over half for one collection! For the most part, the objects were so far outside the museum’s mission that nothing from it was ever on display, nor would it be.

Even so, the museum staff spent years discussing this, while they tried to decide on the best course to honor the collection, the institution, and the donor’s original intent. Storage space pressures mounted. The collection sat quietly in archival boxes, untouched, uncataloged, and unstudied. The museum even tried to find a new home for the collection in its entirety, willing just to hand the whole thing over to another better-funded or more appropriate institution, but everyone they talked with was already in the same position. Meanwhile, the museum was undergoing a vigorous, enthusiastic restoration and reinterpretation.

Ultimately, the decision was made that the funds raised by selling this collection could help fund the purchase of many objects that would play key roles in the restoration and the mission of the museum’s historic home. Andrew consulted with the curator to identify a “representative sampling” of objects from the collection that would honor the gift and aid in telling the collector’s story and role in the museum’s history in a manageable way. The rest? With Andrew’s help, it went to auction. A few months later, the museum received a check for nearly $90,000—far, far more than they expected. That long-dead collector’s gift was extremely generous and has helped guarantee that the interpretation of the house will not be bound by financial constraints.

Other museums have used this process, some of them quite successfully. Some use their names openly, but many more don’t, as in the case of Andrew’s client, for fear of bad press. The media juggernaut or even just the local disgruntled gossip can cause public relations nightmares, sometimes for institutions woefully unprepared to handle them. Selling valuable mission-irrelevant objects to fund the purchase of or care of mission-relevant objects is entirely logical and responsible, so why the fuss? “Direct collections care” is the phrase the American Alliance of Museums uses. The alliance requires its member museums to adhere to this when determining how to use funds raised by deaccessioning. The alliance has been talking about appropriate fund usage for decades, so this is by no means uncharted territory. There is absolutely a risk of coming to view a collection as a checkbook to tap for paying rent, fixing roofs, etc. Getting rid of objects is permanent, so the process needs to be thoughtful, deliberate, and frankly, not too easy.

At the same time, museums have sold all manner of things, even major paintings, to pay for needs other than collections care. They often get lambasted, even though the issue isn’t really black and white. What if a small museum with a tenuous financial future is holding a very high-value mission-irrelevant object in its collection? Maybe it can’t even afford proper humidity control or is being overwhelmed by the necessary insurance or security measures. Should it be allowed only to purchase new objects with a seven-figure check from selling that one object? A million-dollar painting or a million dollars worth of a bunch of other things is still the same problem in many respects. Would not the best stewardship in that instance be to use that money to ensure long-term financial health so that the best of the collection remains in the public trust?

We’re not advocating one way or the other, but it’s a question worth asking, rare as the situation might be. What we are advocating is a halting of the knee-jerk reactions that these situations often inspire. People have narrow ideas sometimes of what museums are supposed to do and how they are supposed to do it, and those ideas have not kept up with the impact technology and the veritable wave of stuff off-loaded by retirees is having on institutions. Incidentally, the situation is not all bad. Museums definitely do want many of the things they’re being offered. They just can’t always say yes to more things without saying no to some already in their possession.

Years ago, when Andrew was still in the auction business, his employer got a call from a journalist seeking a quote about a particular museum that had made a controversial decision to sell (not through the auction house) some high-profile and very valuable objects. The goal of the conversation was clearly some negative, critical commentary. We’ve always admired the response, which essentially was, “Where were you years ago when this museum openly discussed its financial woes? Why weren’t you writing a story then to increase public awareness and get folks to step up and help? Why is the only interest in airing its problems in a negative way?” Needless to say, that ended the call.

No doubt, some of these well-known cases of museums selling off treasures are clear cases of malfeasance and the result of years of poor management, but we don’t always need to jump directly to that conclusion. And let’s not forget, these are public institutions—as members of that public, we bear some of the responsibility. Perhaps we need to bring these problems out into the light, to create an environment where museums don’t fear immediate backlash and criticism if they need to say, “Hey, we’re having a problem here. These are some ideas we’ve had, but we’re not happy with all of them. Help?” Instead, the decisions are often made quietly simply out of fear of bad press, and that’s never helpful. That kind of secrecy is no way to ensure that institutional staff are well educated about the options, have been able to ask the questions necessary to compare various decisions and their outcomes, or even become adequately informed about the value of their objects. That’s one of those things those of us in the trade don’t usually think about. We see something and almost reflexively put a mental price tag on it. Museums almost never think in those terms. It’s a discussion for another time whether it’s problematic, but you could ask many curators what the most popular objects in their collection might be worth and they’d have no idea. It’s just not part of the scope of their day-to-day job, incredible as that seems to many of us who operate so firmly in the dollars and cents of the marketplace.

In the end, before we rush out to grab our rushlights and Shaker-made pitchforks, it wouldn’t hurt to remember (our paraphrasing) the advice of a friend’s mother. It’s advice we use with our kids and with our work: if you aren’t willing or able to show up with a solution or an offer to help, you can keep your criticism to yourself. We all just have to keep repeating it until it sticks.

We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” We may be reached  by e-mail <>, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheYoungAntiquesCollectors), or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.

Originally published in the September 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

comments powered by Disqus
Web Design By Firefly Maine Maine Web Design