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Brooklyn’s Costume “Transfer” to the Met: A Huge Deaccession-in-Disguise

Beaded velvet ball gown with fur-edged hem, Paris, 1890s, offered from Brooklyn Museum’s costume collection at Augusta Auctions’ Nov. 10 sale in New York

I’ve got a major correction to make:

I was wrong in unconditionally extolling the transfer of the Brooklyn Museum’s costume collection to the Metropolitan Museum, back when that deal was announced two years ago. My chief assumption about what I called a “win-win arrangement”—that the collection would be preserved rather than sold—was grossly in error.

Here’s what I so gullibly wrote in December 2008, when I heaped praise on the Brooklyn-Met “transfer”:

Another financially pressed institution might say that a long-held
collection, which it could not properly conserve or display, fell
outside its present mission and should be sold to benefit other

Would the Brooklyn Museum do this? Fuhgeddaboudit!

Actually, that’s exactly what the Brooklyn Museum DID do. It just fuhgoddaboud telling us that that the Met was going to send a large part of the trove to auction, with the proceeds benefiting Brooklyn’s collection.

I wasn’t the only one who had the wool pulled over her eyes by the misleading press release heralding this “landmark collection-sharing partnership.” Carol Vogel‘s spoonfed “scoop” about the transfer, published in the NY Times, also asserted that Brooklyn’s collection would be “be properly cared for and exhibited” at the Met, which would “integrate the collection into its own Costume Institute.” Nothing was mentioned about future sales.

Now it turns out that the Met will “integrate” only part of the collection into its Costume Institute. The rest is being sold—a winnowing described as “vast” by Bob Ross, co-head (with his wife, Karen Augusta) of Augusta Auctions, which is handling the disposals. Last week in New York, Augusta offered, by Ross’ count, some 96 lots from Brooklyn’s costume collection—the auction house’s sixth sale containing some of the museum’s castoffs. The NY Post a year ago published an early article about the disposals, here.

Ross told me that he expects to post the price list for the Nov. 10 sale (which also included property from other consignors) “later this week.” But meanwhile he revealed to me that this closet-cleaning is far from over:

The collection is vast and it will take at least
three or more years to complete the deaccession.
Our next sale of Brooklyn objects in New York will be on Mar. 30, 2011 and we will
have another sale in Sturbridge, MA, on May 10-11.

Sally Williams, the Brooklyn Museum’s public information officer, a few weeks ago sent me this written response to my queries about the deaccessions:

The Brooklyn Museum transferred the collection to the Met with the understanding that they would review the collection and that they would need to make enlightened deaccessioning choices after they studied the collection and compared it with what they already have.

The agreement sets out a process by which the Met proposes objects they wish to remove from the collection and they give the list to the Brooklyn Museum for review. If the Brooklyn Museum finds objects on the list that we believe should remain in the collection, we can make a case to the Met that they not be deaccessioned.

If the Met agrees with us, they remain in the collection. If the Met disagrees and still wishes to eliminate the object, the Brooklyn Museum has a limited number of lifetime vetoes through which we can insist that something remain in the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Even though the proceeds from the sale of objects removed from the collection, by the terms of the agreement, come to the Brooklyn Museum to benefit the collection, all of the arrangements for the sale are made by the Met….The Brooklyn Museum has a degree of oversight in this process, but the details of deaccessioning and sales are in the Met’s court.

I’m not enough of an expert to know whether any of the sold works are worthy of a museum’s collection and should have been retained or transferred to another institution, rather than monetized.

What I do know is that there was no transparency whatsoever about this clothes-for-cash gambit when the Brooklyn/Met agreement was announced. This runs counter to the following stipulation in the Association of Art Museum Directors’ Policy on Deaccessioning:

Attention must be given to transparency throughout the process.

That manifestly did not happen here. The public was not informed that the vaunted “collection-sharing” also involved collection-selling. Nor did anyone disabuse me of my misconceptions about the deal, after I published my laudatory post.

If the Met and Brooklyn had nothing to hide, they shouldn’t have hidden it.

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