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Columbia University’s Big Mistake? Or Misconceptions About Deaccessioning?

Writing on The Nation‘s website, Jon Wiener outlines the tale of how Columbia University stupidly sold a Rembrandt in 1974 that’s now worth multiples of the price it got. Right from the start, though, he generalizes, saying the story “has many lessons, starting with the folly of universities selling art to make money.”

But hold on a minute.

RembrantManArmsAkimboThe painting in question is Man with Arms Akimbo, from 1658. at left. Columbia sold it for “more than” $1 million to a private collector, which in today’s dollar’s, Wiener says, would be a little over $4 million. Yet it carried a price tag of $47 million at Maastricht last year, and dealer Otto Naumann is currently offering it at his gallery. Go here to see the painting in higher-res than this website, as well as its provenance.

The painting was given to Columbia by George Huntington Hartford II in 1958. Columbia sold it to “Harold Diamond, Inc., New York, from whom [it was] acquired by John Seward Johnson (1895 – 1983).” It passed “By inheritance to his third wife, Barbara (“Basia”) Piasecka Johnson (b. 1937),” who consigned it to Christie’s where it sold in December, 2009. “A private collector in the United States” bought it there — said by Wiener to be Steven Wynn, who paid $33 million for it. Naumann bought it from him.

At Columbia, the painting hung in the president’s office, which was in the administration building, which was occupied in 1968 by students protesting the Vietnam War (and called barbarians). They,  however, protected the painting. So Wiener writes:

A painting that should have been on display disappeared from public view for the next forty years—in exchange for which the university got $1 million. So who were the real barbarians?

Universities selling art made headlines in 2009, when Brandeis announced it would sell off the paintings in the university’s Rose Art Museum, including works by de Kooning, Warhol and Lichtenstein, to make money for the school. Outraged protests from the university community and the art world led the trustees to back away from the decision. Columbia’s 1975 sale provides an early example of the practice.

Later he says, as another lesson:

Also: selling old masters eventually makes the seller look foolish, because the prices always go up.

Actually, Wiener looks a bit foolish himself. Old Master prices, as you know, do not “always go up.”

He forgets, too, that Columbia doesn’t have an art museum — unlike Brandeis and his other generalized colleges. Perhaps that’s because it’s located in NYC, where art museums are plentiful and great and likely to outshine anything Columbia could have put together.

He forgets, too, where that painting was as a result — in the president’s office. Hardly on public view.

Did Columbia make a bad deal? Perhaps. But I’d have to see what other Rembrandts were selling for in 1974 — comparables are what counts, not current prices.

More important, as far as I can tell from his story, Columbia’s tale has little relevance to other colleges and universities, with art museums, and deaccessioning. Rather than shed light, Wiener has simply confused the issue. The issue needs light, not heat.





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