Chris Crosman, founding chief curator of Crystal Bridges Museum, tipped me off this week to the Newark Museum of Art’s 217-lot deaccession binge, in progress at this writing at Millea Bros., a self-described “boutique auction company” previously unknown to me, even though its home base—Boonton, NJ—is a mere 33 miles west of my own home (and 21 miles northwest of the Newark Museum). Crosman sent me a list of African objects consigned by Newark to Millea, but, as it turns out, African works were only the tip of the iceberg: Newark’s wide-ranging disposals also include a diverse array of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, such as these Greco-Roman coins.
Who needs cryptocurrency, when you can garner Grecocurrency?
Regarding the African art being jettisoned, Crosman mused (via email):
I assume they have better examples and these are not often exhibited or even have much value for study purposes. Still, it is unclear if this is a one-off housekeeping [more appropriately, “housecleaning”] effort, or indicative of something bigger and potentially controversial for a museum that serves a majority black municipality.
The Newark Museum is understandably gun shy about discussing its disposals, especially after the strong backlash it recently incurred when selling significant works of American art, including a Thomas Cole that now resides at the Philadelphia Museum. When I asked Newark’s officials for specifics on the new deaccessions—descriptions, provenance, exhibition history, presale estimates and the timing of the sales—all I got back was the link to its Policy on the Use of Deaccession Proceeds for Direct Care (of which I was already well aware, as you can see in the first paragraph of this post).
My follow-up email seeking responses to my specific queries, sent to the museum’s deputy director external affairs, Deborah Kasindorf, and cc’d to its director, Linda Harrison, elicited this brusque reply from an outside public relations consultant—Ben Martin, vice president at the Trenton-based EFK Group:
The Newark Museum of Art has responded to your latest line of inquiry with an online link to its Deacession Policy. This policy explains the institution’s approach to deaccessioning works in its collections. The Museum has no further information to provide with respect to your inquiry.
Ouch! I know a stonewall when I hit one.
Bruised but undaunted, I searched for “Newark Museum” on the Millea Bros. website, which brought up the above-mentioned list of 217 objects consigned by the museum for sale (linked in the first paragraph of this post). For works that failed to sell during the live auction, there’s a “Contact Us” button at the bottom, which suggests that there’s still time to make an offer, as with this carved wood Senufo sculpture—“PASSED” (unsold), against an estimate of $500-700. Clicking the button allows you to send an “Inquiry on Lot 1025 – Senufo Peoples, large female figure, ex-museum.”
Having gained an increased understanding and appreciation of such objects while reviewing the Cleveland Museum’s 2015 Senufo show for the Wall Street Journal, I recognized that the Newark Museum’s deaccessioned figure, above, is a “rhythm pounder,” which (as I wrote in the WSJ) is a funerary figure, mounted on a round base, with an improbably attenuated torso that was held by its long, spindly arms, to be thumped on the ground during deceased poro members’ processions to the grave. (“Poro” refers to secret, restricted male associations that convey esoteric knowledge to their members.)
It might have been helpful (not to mention, enticing to potential bidders) if the Newark Museum had provided this context in the online auction catalogue. Perhaps its curators weren’t as savvy as Constantine Petridis, the Cleveland Museum’s curator for its Senufo show. (You can see my CultureGrrl commentary on that voluminous, absorbing exploration, along with my photos of the exhibition’s rhythm pounders, here.)
On the plus side, this “Dan Peoples mask” (with woven hair and shell beads) made a mockery of its $200-300 estimate, fetching a whopping $15,000:
If you’re a devoted CultureGrrl reader (like James Sheehan, chief of the NYS Attorney General’s Charities Bureau), you already know I take a dim view of “stealth deaccessions”: The public has the right to know not only what’s in a museum’s collection, but also what’s being offloaded from it. Full disclosure, not stonewalling, is the appropriate stance. The Newark Museum’s esteemed former director, Mary Sue Sweeney Price (who also served as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors) wouldn’t have needed this remonstrance.
Speaking of lapses, the Newark Museum’s Collections Search website unaccountably still remains “Under Construction,” as it was when I last looked, five months ago. Perhaps that’s because its collection is a moving target.
Call it, “Under de-Construction”:
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