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Corcoran Sends 10 American Paintings to Christie’s: Who Needs “Depth in the Collection”?

Thomas Cole, “Return from the Tournament,” 1841, consigned by the Corcoran Gallery to Christie’s

It has now been disclosed that the 10 American paintings selected for sale by the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, will be offered at the American paintings auction at Christie’s, New York, on Dec. 4, with a total presale estimate of $4-6 million. Jacqueline Trescott of the Washington Post last Friday broke the news that a 10-work Corcoran disposal would take place, but details on the time and place of their sale were not yet available.

In response to my queries, the Corcoran provided a list of the works’ exhibition histories and the rationales behind each disposal. But the Corcoran and Christie’s said they could not yet provide me with images (other than the Cole’s) or provenance (including whether the works were purchased or, if not, who had been the donors).

So here’s what I’ve got:

None of the 10 paintings have been on exhibition in recent years, according to the information provided by the Corcoran. The most recently exhibited was Thomas Cole‘s “Return from the Tournament,” 1841, above, which was on reciprocal loan in 1990 at the National Gallery, Washington (bespeaking its quality). The Corcoran justifies its disposal on the curious grounds of “Depth in the Collection”: It is deemed less important than “The Return,” a similar Cole also owned by the museum. I had always thought that having depth in the collection was a GOOD thing. Can a museum have too many excellent Coles?

“Depth in the Collection” is also the justification for the disposals of these works:

George Inness, “Tenafly, Autumn,” 1891 (I WANT this one! My family and I lived in Tenafly, NJ, for 22 years. Now I finally know why there’s an Inness Road in town.) It was one of six Innesses at the Cocoran.
Eastman Johnson, “Child Playing with Rabbit,” 1878, one of six Johnsons.
Gari Melchers, “The Smithy,” 1910, one of six Melchers
Gilbert Stuart, “John Ellery,” 1810, one of seven Stuarts, including two George Washingtons. Maybe they should also ditch one of those redundancies. (Just kidding.)
Edmund Tarbell, “Still Life,” 1918, one of four Tarbells. “Still lifes were not a significant part of his career,” the Corcoran says.

The disposals of two other paintings were justified on the dual grounds of “Quality and depth in the collection”:

Frederick Carl Frieseke, “Giverny Landscape,” 1915-1916, one of three Friesekes.
Alexander Wyant, “Late Afternoon,” before 1883, one of three Wyants.

And two more are being sold strictly on the grounds of inferior quality:

William Glackens, “Christmas Roses,” ca. 1930. “The Corcoran has excellent examples of his best work.”
John Twachtman, “Spring Landscape,” ca. 1890-1900. The Corcoran owns a better Twachtman and this one “has little visual or compositional impact.” Nevertheless, it was put on “indefinite loan to the White House” in 1977.

According to the museum’s “Statement Regarding Deaccession” (not available online), AAMD guidelines about use of deaccession proceeds are being followed:

All funds generated from the sale of deaccessioned works of art will be restricted and reinvested in new acquisitions in order to improve and refine the quality of the museum’s collection….In accord with the institution’s new strategic plan, the Corcoran has begun the process of refining and strengthening its collections by deaccessioning less relevant works of art, or works that do not meet the mission, standards, or scope of a particular collection.

In other words, these 10 disposals are just the beginning. This is not the first time that the Corcoran has embarked on a major housecleaning: In May 1979, it offered at Sotheby’s 80 19th-century European paintings, to raise funds for the purchase of American art (which it regarded as its main area of concentration, even though to this day it maintains a European collection). About one-quarter of those deaccessioned works had been consistently exhibited on loan at the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery since its opening in 1972.

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