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Why MFA Boston Makes Me Queasy

Yesterday, the Museum of Fine Arts – Boston announced that it was putting on view “a special loan of the beloved Norman Rockwell painting, The Rookie (The Red Sox Locker Room)” from 1957. MFA made it a celebration of  the “third World Series Championship in a decade” for the Red Sox, and said the painting will be in the galleries for just six days, through May 4.

NRockwellWhy? Because it is “being offered at auction at Christie’s (New York) on May 22” in the American art auction. The MFA didn’t day, but the estimate is $20- to 30 million. It did say:

The MFA is the only place where the public will be able to see the celebrated painting in Boston––which depicts the Red Sox locker room in 1957 during spring training in Sarasota, Florida––before it goes on the auction block. Rockwell’s classic work, portraying a group of seasoned veterans giving the once-over to the team’s newest player, will be on view in the MFA’s Sharf Visitor Center. The painting was also on display at the MFA in 2005 and 2008, following World Series wins.

Well, not quite. Won’t it be in the sale exhibition? But that’s minor — the painting is already highly valued, and may not need the endorsement of the MFA. After all, it has already been on view there before. It was acquired by the current owner in 1986.

Six days on view may not mean much, but it nevertheless raises the painting’s profile. Aside from the MFA, the only other museum to have shown the work, which was the March 2, 1957 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, is the Norman Rockwell Museum. Small as this is, I still think that museums shouldn’t be used to enhance value right before a sale.

On the other hand, I do give the MFA credit for disclosing the auction right upfront.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the MFA



  1. Barbara Chalsma says:

    My immediate reaction was that surely the benefactors of the Rockwell Museum can buy this painting for its permanent collection. Or are the Berkshires just too remote from Fenway Park to recognize the importance to Massachusetts? What am I missing?

  2. Chris Crosman says:

    Is that Ted Williams’ profile in the background center, completely ignoring “the Rookie”?! Red Sox should totally buy this and put on long term loan to MFA Boston!

  3. M.F. Sibley says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. Exhibiting this painting at the MFA most assuredly DOES enhance the value of it before the auction at Christie’s. If and when this painting is ever sold again, the provenance will be further enriched by this exhibit and any other that the new owner may choose to allow to take place. Documentation is always a key element in valuation, especially when one can get a major museum to “play the game” along with the owner.

    It’s rather sad to think that this may now become a new way to get museums to become clearinghouses for collectors eager to get as much publicity (and money) as possible for their artwork. Who is the collector who owns this work and what sort of “pull” did he/she have with the MFA that warranted this special exhibit? I own a William Trost Richards painting. If I decide to sell it, can I count on the MFA to profile my painting as well? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

  4. Maybe the MFA should start a series. Every month they could take a work of art from the market, not just auction houses but the dealers as well and feature it! Before long the trustees would also have featured works but they probably do that already in more subtle ways!!

  5. The thought that comes to mind is “integrity ” which seems to be lacking at the MFA .

  6. Can we lighten up a bit? This is about a painting of a sport and a team that are revered in the city of Boston. So the owner and the MFA are giving access to this painting to the fans (and perhaps even people who appreciate art) for a few days before it likely disappears into a private collection and out of view for who knows how long. Can we just see the “fun” in that without angsting over possible (unlikely) evil motivations? This isn’t a curated exhibition. It’s just a safe, climate-controlled place to show a painting that is iconic for the people of Boston. Why can’t we ever just say “thank you” when works of art are made available for viewing by the public.

    • Mark,

      As a curator for a museum, there are pitfalls to be avoided. This is not one of them. I agree with you. If the piece was not being offered for sale, there would be complaints that the MFA is pandering to the populists.

      Glad you spoke up,


      P.S. When considering whether or not to buy a $15 – $20 million on a painting. I don’t think people would consider this mini show the same as being the featured painting in a retrospective. They would however get a certain reassurance that the piece is likely not a forgery or copy.

  7. There are other safe climate controlled places in Boston I am sure … but unfortunately they do not carry
    the same “weight ” that does a museum . Once in a museum a work is worth more on the market than it
    would perhaps be worth if shown in a local climate controlled coffee shop. One magic word used for this
    in the auction world is “provenance “. And one can bet that it will be made known however subtly that
    the work was on display in a major museum ……’s all business and has little to do with art .
    The comment by Mark brings up the thought of a fox selling” safe” chicken coop plans to the
    unsuspecting . The new owner will proudly let visitors know that the work once hung in a major
    museum . There is a sucker born every minute makes the world go round .

  8. There is a certain Boston radio station when it is not hustling for funding runs an add advising the public
    there are only so many days left to see this Rockwell work at the Museum of Fine Arts . If this all doesn’t
    stink to high heaven I don’t know what does . One wonders if there is not a lot more to this transaction
    than meets the eye .

    • I’m not sure I understand your objection to advertising it. It’s not the number of visitors seeing a work at a museum that tends to increase its value; it’s the very fact that it is there.

  9. You are correct its being there tends to increase the value — but getting throngs of people to view the
    work can only make it seem more desirable and it benefits the seller & the auction house to no end .
    It would be of interest to know who the seller is and if the seller has any connection to the people who run the museum . M. F. Sibley would be lucky to get the time of day .

  10. Not to prolong this discussion, but I just learned that this painting was also on view at the MFA in 2005 and 2008, following World Series victories by the Red Sox. Do we seriously think that the conspiracy to enhance the value of this painting by letting the people of Red Sox Nation enjoy it for a few days as part of those celebrations, and now as a farewell opportunity, was conceived by the owner and abetted by the MFA nine years ago? Honestly, if it had been “exhibited” at the MFA twice already, what value would a third showing have provided.

    I, for one, would like to thank whoever owns it for sharing it with the people of Boston and New England.

    It’s just baseball, people. NOW can we lighten up?

    • That’s not news – I wrote in the post: “After all, it has already been on view there before.” Also, it’s the precedent that is most harmful here. Other museums will feel freer to follow suit when it’s not just six days or a hometown picture.

      • Putting a piece in the MFA’s galleries for a populist-driven week or so does not give the painting a magical patina of provenance dust.

        As for the precedence, I see bigger problems for museums and the MFA. How about their crowdsourcing show, Boston Loves Impressionism???

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