Breakingviews - Controversial museum sales set messy precedent

A painting by Claude Monet, part of the Haystacks "Les Meules" series, is displayed at Sotheby's during a press preview of their upcoming impressionist and modern art sale in New York, U.S., May 3, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - It’s rarely a good sign when a museum decides to monetise parts of its collection – yet some institutions are painting that picture. The Baltimore Museum of Art considered selling three significant works of art in an effort to raise staff salaries as well as diversify its collection. Elsewhere, Covid-19 is putting some under financial pressure. As selling becomes normalised, others may follow. It sets a messy precedent.

The Brooklyn Museum and the Palm Springs Art Museum were among those selling prominent works at auction, including paintings by Claude Monet and Helen Frankenthaler. The BMA had planned to sell paintings by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still, and Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper” through public auction and private sale, estimated to fetch around $65 million, before walking back its plans recently amid backlash.

Although BMA’s curators maintain the museum is not in financial straits, Covid-19 has been taking its toll on many. In April, noting the pandemic, the Association of Art Museum Directors relaxed guidelines effectively and temporarily giving museums more latitude to use restricted endowment funds, trust or donations for operating expenses. Other museums are seizing the moment to promote loftier goals. BMA curators were hoping to sell paintings to bring in more works of art that promote “diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion.”

Still, it’s not clear that the ends justify the means. For one, museums are curators but have less experience as sellers, so they could end up getting fire-sale prices if they flood the market with works. The BMA’s Warhol in question was likely to be sold at a “bargain-basement price” according to opponents in a letter sent to Maryland’s attorney general before the sale was halted. Even if museums manage to fetch a price above estimates, once a piece is on the market, a museum is unlikely to ever get it back.

There are other points of contention. Selling a work by a still-living artist, as the BMA would have done if it had proceeded with the sale by Marden, is often seen as a faux pas. After all, that artist would likely prefer to set the market prices of their own pieces. If there were legitimate and well-intentioned financial issues to address, there may be better forms of fundraising that might not require sending iconic works under the hammer.


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