Notes & Comments May 1990
Looting the museums
On the practice of “deaccessioning.”
The spectacular theft of paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston earlier this spring—a haul that included the museum’s prized Vermeer—has added a grievous criminal injury to the already painful—but, alas, apparently legal—blows that the art public has lately suffered at the hands of the museums themselves. Shocking and disgusting as the Boston theft unquestionably is, it is difficult not to see in it a parody of the kind of activity—the deaccessioning of museum-quality works of art from the so-called permanent collections of our museums—that has now become so commonplace in the museological profession itself.
The root cause of both the legal and the illegal versions of this activity is, of course, the same. Money. The insane prices fetched by certain works of art on the international art market has induced professional crooks and professional curators alike to look upon museum holdings as “assets” that may be profitably transferred into private hands.
From a strictly commercial point of view, the criminal version of this practice obviously has certain advantages for the buyer.
From a strictly commercial point of view, the criminal version of this practice obviously has certain advantages for the buyer. It eliminates the middle men—the dealers and auction houses—and ensures privacy by avoiding the unwelcome publicity that nowadays is sure to accompany the acquisition of wildly overpriced art. There is even a tiny advantage for the public in these criminal transactions: it is spared the kind of canting curatorial apologias that are always given when the museums themselves engage in the (albeit legal) looting of their own collections. The net result for the public, however, whether the looting is legal or criminal, is the same: it is permanently denied access to works of art placed in the museums as a public trust. And while everyone understands that it is the public that has been robbed in the Gardner Museum crime, many people are still slow to grasp the extent to which the public is also robbed when our great museums hand over, with the consent of their boards and their staffs, important works of art to the dealers and the auction houses, and fully understand when they do so that these works will instantly—and in many cases, permanently—disappear from public view.
It is our impression that the runaway selling spree that our museums are now engaged in has not enhanced their reputation with the public. Far from it. It has damaged public confidence in the judgment of museum professionals, and induced a widespread feeling of cynicism about the way museums are run. It has cast grave doubts about the priorities that museums now set for themselves—and most particularly about the maniacal ambition to expand their existing facilities that has caused so many museums to exhaust their resources. The willingness—even the eagerness—of museums to part with high-quality works of art for whatever reason places every other policy and activity in these institutions under a cloud.
There is a lot about art museums today to cause distress to anyone who goes to them for aesthetic purposes. Their rampant commercialization has long been a scandal. Their noise levels are often intolerable. Those terrible tapes that the museum persuades ignorant visitors to clamp onto their heads and into their ears so that they can endure the ordeal of walking past great paintings without really looking at them are a noxious sound-distraction to serious viewers, and these canned lectures are not made more attractive by the oversize photo-portraits of grinning museum directors that are often displayed as part of the sales pitch. But in the past the serious viewer could at least count on the integrity of the permanent collections. Now that these are being dismantled and sold off at a faster rate than ever before, the experienced museumgoer is made to feel a new sense of despair about the whole enterprise. And this feeling—that the looters have been put in charge of the treasures they were hired to preserve and protect in the public interest—isn’t going to be dissipated anytime soon. If the criminals who stole the paintings out of the Gardner Museum are ever caught, we can be reasonably confident that they will be put on trial and sent to jail. In regard to the legal looters who are now depleting our museum collections at an even greater rate, we have no reason to feel that justice will ever be done.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 9, on page 1
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