How to Make the Most of Museum Deaccessions: Three Art Consultants Weigh In

Sep 18, 2017

Collectors and museums interact in myriad ways, some more obvious than others. Institutions may be where collectors receive their first aesthetic educations, and collectors’ names often accompany the wall text as the donors of the pieces on view. Sitting on museum boards, collectors often guide major institutions, support them financially, and help plan annual benefits.

On rare occasions, however, when museums deaccession works, collectors can buy pieces directly from them. On October 10, for example, Christie’s will hold a sale to deaccession some of the duplicate photographs in MoMA’s own collection. It’s both an opportunity to purchase works once held by one of the world’s most reputable museums and to witness a rare sale that will connect an auction house, a museum, and collectors in an unusual way. Three art consultants told us what more collectors should know about the ways that museum deaccessions can affect them and their art collection.

Why would a museum deaccession work in the first place, and how could this impact collectors for better or for worse?

Xiliary Twil, Accredited Senior Appraiser at Art Asset Management Group in Beverly Hills, is skeptical of museum deaccessions. “When a museum deaccessions a work, there is a reason why,” she says. “Most likely they are wanting to raise funds to purchase another work of art: perhaps by the same artist but a better quality or more significant piece; or another artist to fill out their collection; or because they need to free up storage space, or a work has become too valuable to insure.”

Brenda Simonson-Mohle, of Dallas's Signet Art, describes how the public sometimes frowns upon such sales. In 2013, the city of Detroit was about to declare bankruptcy. They considered selling some of their city assets and even appraised some of the items in the Detroit Institute of Arts. “Then that leaked out to the market that that was the plan and there was a firestorm within the industry and within art professionals,” she says. Certainly, collectors may do better to steer clear of those types of incidents.

Yet in the case of MoMA, art consultant Leslie Rankow, who runs her own eponymous agency in New York, is more positive. The provenance of the work available, she says, is an incentive to buy. If a museum is selling a work by an artist or of a period that collectors are interested in, she says, “having that museum cache is very valuable.” If this aspect of the work won’t dramatically impact its value, it will tilt it toward its high estimate in future sales.

“Provenance is everything,” agrees Simonson-Mohle. One of the potential concerns during these sales may be flooding the market and lowering an artist’s price. Yet, she thinks, no one wants to do that, and museums would be careful not to. In fact, she thinks that the sale of “one or two pieces or a small collection of pieces from a strong collection could actually tweak the market upward.”

If collectors are interested in purchasing from a museum deaccession, how should they choose an art advisor to advise them?

Rankow is clear about the qualities collectors should look for: “Transparency, honesty, knowledge of the market, and a substantial place in the network of who’s the best person to help sell it,” she says. “If you’re going to sell it to another dealer or not directly to another collector, then you’d want someone who is well connected themselves in the art world.” Beyond their specific qualities, an advisor’s professional connections can greatly increase the potential pool of buyers.

Simonson-Mohle believes that the right advisors for certain collectors should have a “depth of knowledge in the field.” If you’re interested in a particular photographer, hire an advisor who has corresponding expertise. She gives an example of how this can be helpful. If two Rembrandt etchings come to auction, she says, they could have very different values. Depending on their printing and the way they’ve been maintained, one could be worth much more than the other. Hire an art consultant who can suss out the differences and understand the context and worth of an object.

What should collectors know when they donate their own works to museums?

Be wary, says Twil, that your work may never be seen. “There is no guarantee that it will ever be exhibited,” she says. “Works can languish in storage and over the years, curators cull through the collection looking for ways to strengthen their department's holdings, which means certain works need to sold.” When collectors donate their works, they’re typically non-restricted gifts. This means the institutions can sell the work. At some point, they could deaccession your donation, and you could see it in an auction catalogue.

Twil also believes that the fact that a museum once held the work won’t always guarantee an enhanced value. “Like anything in the art world, it is based upon the tenor of the marketplace, is this a high quality example of the artist and the demand for this artist,” she says. “All variables that unless you have a crystal ball, are difficult to predict.” And if this sounds frustrating, it can also be one of the major thrills of participating in the circus. The unpredictable, notably unregulated nature of the market has added to its allure for years. The symbiotic relationship between museum and collector, at least, is one thing you can count on.

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