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Deaccession Deactivation: Fallout from Baltimore Museum’s Pullout from Sotheby’s (& other pratfalls) UPDATED

UPDATE: Darrell Rocha, Sotheby’s estimable senior VP, director of Press Office, Americas, revealed that “my time at Sotheby’s [13 years] is coming to a close at the end of this year.” Karina Sokolovsky had assumed his title as Worldwide Head of Communications in early October. (He and Mitzi Mina had been co-heads of communications.)

The misadventures of Sotheby’s David Galperin, hyping four anticipated highlights of Sotheby’s Oct. 28 Contemporary Art sale, would be ripe for parody if the underlying issues weren’t serious.

None of the four works discussed by Sotheby’s hapless head of contemporary evening sales in the auction house’s promotional preview video (beginning at 16:40) found buyers at Wednesday evening’s sale. The first two that he touted—the Baltimore Museum of Art’s deaccessioned Clyfford Still and Brice Mardennever even made it to the salesroom.

David Galperin (left), Sotheby’s head of Contemporary evening sales, & Grégoire Billault, head of Contemporary Art, at a November 2019 press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Also missing-in-action on the night of the auction was the third painting that Galperin had extolled in the online preview—Jasper John‘s Two Flags on Orange, 1986-87, acrylic on plastic, which he described as: “one of the most important representations of the flag [by Johns] to come to auction in many years”…

…or maybe not: At the beginning of the sale, auctioneer Oliver Barker announced, without explanation, that the Johns (estimated to bring $7-10 million) had been withdrawn. You can glimpse it below (far right), as installed from February 2017 to May 2018 at The Broad, Los Angeles, in Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’:

Installation shot from the Jasper Johns exhibition at the Broad

The fourth painting Galperin had pitched in the virtual preview, Mark Rothko‘s “Untitled (Black on Maroon),” made it into the sale but was left stranded on the auction block. Estimated at $25-35 million, it went unsold at $24 million.

Below is an image of Galperin extolling “this amazing Mark Rothko painting from 1958” in Sotheby’s bad-luck video:

Screenshot of David Galperin discussing the (later unsold) Rothko

As he licks his wounds, I should admit (all kidding aside) that I admire this young specialist in contemporary art, who arrived at Sotheby’s seven years ago with a distinguished educational pedigree. When he expounds on his wares, he is insightful and articulate. I think the jury is still out, though, on whether this translates into a talent for wooing megabucks buyers. That might require someone who combines Galperin’s intelligence with deep practical experience (think Impressionist/modern expert David Norman, former vice chairman of Sotheby’s North America, who recently became chairman of Phillips Americas).

But back to the trials of The Baltimore Three—the Still and the Marden that were to be sold at public auction and the Warhol that was to be sold by Sotheby’s privately: Their future, for now, is a mystery. When asked by me why it had decided to pause the sales at Sotheby’s and whether any or all of the “paused” works would eventually be re-offered, the Baltimore Museum’s spokesperson replied that it was “declining” to answer these and other questions that I posed. It passed the buck to Sotheby’s and the Association of Art Museum Directors, both of which were similarly unenlightening when I queried them.

It seems to me that all of the actors in this black comedy need to rethink their roles and repair the reputational damage that this episode may have caused: The Baltimore Museum should use its “pause” to re-accession the deaccessions and to announce that it will deaccession more cautiously and responsibly in the future, taking into fuller account these factors: the quality of works being considered for disposal; their significance to the collection and to the public; the intentions and sensibilities of the museum’s past and present donors; and the considered judgment of earlier curators and directors (including Arnold Lehman, a past director of the BMA, who came out forcefully against the sales).

Arnold Lehman, formerly the Baltimore Museum’s and then the Brooklyn Museum’s director, now Senior Advisor to the CEO at Phillips Auction
Photo taken at the Brooklyn Museum by Lee Rosenbaum

Here (issued a week before the sale) and here (issued after the 11th-hour “pause” was instituted) are the museum’s public pronouncements about this contretemps.

As for Sotheby’s—although it is not in the business of turning away important consignments, it might want to consider staving off the potential embarrassment and the reputational hit of a deaccession-misfire by counseling museum directors about the damaging firestorm they’re apt to ignite if they rashly attempt to sell what they should keep.

Most of all, AAMD, as the arbiter of art-museum ethics, needs to clean up its act: Instead of leaving it up to individual museums to decide how to interpret its loosened guidelines, it needs to rigorously define, clearly express and strongly uphold the principles of best practices, calling out institutions that use the excuse of a pandemic (or even of laudable diversity goals) to dismantle what distinguished predecessors have built.

For an account of how the rest of Sotheby’s sale went, I’ll refer you, for now, to Margaret Carrigan‘s incisive recap in The Art Newspaper. If you’ve got 4½ hours to kill while hunkering-in during the pandemic, you can binge on the replay of the entire livestream of back-to-back contemporary and Impressionist/modern auctions.

Sotheby’s indefatigable auctioneer, Oliver Barker, looking momentarily disgruntled at the Oct. 28, 3-city auction that he conducted from London
Screenshot from the livestream

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