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Deaccession Dejection: La Salle’s Sales Slide at Christie’s UPDATED

This is an I-told-you-so post.

Some six of 16 old masters deaccessioned by the La Salle University Art Museum were left stranded on the auction block at Christie’s this afternoon. Of the 10 that did sell, only four equaled or exceeded their presale estimates.

Br. Daniel Burke, the museum’s late founder and university’s president emeritus, might have derived grim satisfaction knowing that the work behind him in the photo below would remain with the museum, despite the university’s efforts to unload it (unless Christie’s and/or La Salle manage to entice a private buyer):

Br. Daniel Burke with La Salle University Art Museum’s Tintoretto, “Portrait of a Gentleman,” unsold today at Christie’s

The Tintoretto admired by Br. Burke, which led off the series of La Salle old master lots this afternoon (adding to the seven offered this morning), took some air out of the room when it failed to sell at $32,000 (with no discernible bids), against a presale estimate of $50,000-70,000.

Auctioneer James Hastie seemed distraught as he scanned the crowd for nonexistent interest.

Screenshot from the webcast of today’s sale

The most expensive failure was this Hubert Robert, unsold against a presale estimate of $150,000 to $250,000:

Hubert Robert, “The Tomb of Virgil at Posilipo, Naples,” 1784
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The mostly anemic competition for La Salle’s old masters was enlivened by three bidding wars, most notably the battle for the priciest of those offerings, which hammered at $250,000, more than doubling its presale estimate of $80,000-120,000:

Antonio della Corna, “Christ before Annas”
Final price (with buyer’s premium): $312,500

A bidding war at a more modest price-point erupted over the work that I highlighted in my last post as a possible sleeper. I don’t think I’m enough of a market-mover to claim any credit for this, but I suspect some expert (maybe a CultureGrrl reader?) may be able to put a name on the unidentified painter and the subject of this improbably ornate, architecturally complex marvel.

It rapidly ascended to a $32,000 hammer price, against a high estimate of only $18,000:

Flemish School, 18th Century, “A Church Interior”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

UPDATE: The total hammer price for the La Salle old masters sold at Christie’s today was $1.25 million, below the presale estimate of $1.32 million-$2.03 million for all La Salle’s old master offerings (including those that failed to sell).

Given this week’s weak results (including yesterday’s sale of 19th-century European art), I think what I recently wrote about the upcoming Berkshire Museum deaccessions at Sotheby’s has been supported by what’s happened so far at the La Salle sales (which are to continue, in other collecting areas):

Even without the cloud over these disposals, few-to-none of the Berkshire Museum’s [to which we can now add the La Salle University Art Museum’s] works are obvious art-market standouts. What’s more, this is one instance in which museum provenance, often a plus, could be a detriment [emphasis added].

It’s not hard to imagine that museums and collectors who have close ties to public institutions may think twice about participating in sales that respected professional organizations have overwhelmingly deplored. (See the Delaware Art Museum’s failed deaccession as a case in point.)

Prior to opening the bidding on a work being sold to benefit a nonprofit institution, auctioneers often announce the charitable purpose to which the proceeds will be applied. No such announcement occurred for the La Salle lots, probably for good reason: Contravening museums’ professional standards, the deaccession proceeds will be applied not to the art museum but to general university purposes. This is not something to which an auction house that regularly does business with ethically correct museums wants to draw undue attention.

Now further tainted by being burned at auction, the Tintoretto and other market rejects should be returned to the students and professors who will appreciate them. Perhaps there should even be some soul-searching at both the university and the auction house as to whether this series of misbegotten sales should continue.

Berkshire Museum: Do you copy?

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