Thursday, July 02, 2009

How to Sell a Masterpiece (without considering the public interest)

If a museum decides to sell an object, does the institution have any responsibility beyond maximizing monetary value?

James Snipes, legal counsel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston described [the Albright-Knox decision to sell their pieces at auction] as an "optics issue, rather than an economic one. Going to auction may not provide the best return, but it is the most transparent" way of selling an object. Museums not only "have a fiduciary duty to maximize value when they deaccession objects, but they have to be seen fulfilling that duty."
What is missing here is the duty museums owe to the public (not just the local public but the public at large) to make sure that artworks that have entered the public domain at the cost to the public of a tax deduction do not disappear from public view into the living room of a collector. Maximizing value for the institution at the cost of public value is a bad deal for taxpayers.