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Art & Culture

Masterpieces from Whitney Museum and Restituted Works Head to Auction at Sotheby’s

  • Craig Miller
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  • April 23, 2023
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  • 4 minute read
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Masterpieces from Whitney Museum and Restituted Works Head to Auction at Sotheby’s
Key Takeaways
  • Sotheby's is set to auction several valuable pieces from the Whitney Museum of American Art, including Edward Hopper's Cobb’s Barns, South Truro, estimated to fetch between $8 million and $12 million.
  • The auction will also feature restituted works by Paul Gauguin, Pierre-August Renoir, and Paul Cézanne, which were stolen during World War II and sold to Nazis before being returned to the heirs of French art dealer Ambroise Vollard after a lengthy legal battle.
  • Deaccessioning, or selling artworks from a museum's collection, is a controversial practice that has faced backlash in recent years, with critics arguing that it can diminish the institution's cultural and historical significance and potentially lead to important pieces ending up in private collections.
  • Sotheby's has been actively securing restituted items for sale, and the sale of these works may have implications for the art world and the public's perception of the museums involved.
  • The legacy of Ambroise Vollard, a significant supporter and champion of artists like Gauguin, Renoir, and Cézanne, is also highlighted in the upcoming auctions.

 

Sotheby’s is set to auction several valuable pieces from the Whitney Museum of American Art in its upcoming Modern Evening Sale next month.

Among the highlights is Edward Hopper’s oil painting, Cobb’s Barns, South Truro (1930–33), estimated to fetch between $8 million and $12 million.

The auction will also feature works of lesser value by Maurice Prendergast, John Marin, and more Hopper pieces.

The museum’s decision to deaccession these artworks aligns with its goals of growing and evolving its collection, according to Jane Panetta, curator and director of the collection at the Whitney.

Restituted Works from Musée d’Orsay on Offer

Four masterpieces by Paul Gauguin, Pierre-August Renoir, and Paul Cézanne, which were restituted to the heirs of French art dealer Ambroise Vollard, will also be featured in Sotheby’s auctions in New York in May 2023.

These works were stolen during World War II and sold to Nazis before being returned to Vollard’s descendants after a lengthy legal battle.

Deaccessioning: A Controversial Practice

The practice of deaccessioning, or selling artworks from a museum’s collection, has been a topic of debate within the art world.

While the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has no legal power, it can sanction museums that deaccession works for reasons other than bolstering their collections.

In April 2020, the AAMD relaxed its rules in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing museums to use proceeds from deaccessioned art for the “direct care” of objects in their collections.

Restituted Artworks: A Growing Market

Sotheby’s has been actively securing restituted items for sale, most notably auctioning off Wassily Kandinsky’s Murnau mit Kirche II (1910) for £37 million in March.

The proceeds from the sale were divided among the 13 heirs of the painting’s former Jewish owners, Johanna Margarete and Siegbert Stern.

The most notable pieces in the upcoming Sotheby’s auctions include Edward Hopper’s Cobb’s Barns, South Truro (1930–33), estimated at $8 million–$12 million, and Paul Gauguin’s Nature morte avec pivoines de chine et mandoline (1885), estimated at $10 million–$15 million.

The Auction Highlights

The most notable pieces in the upcoming Sotheby’s auctions include Edward Hopper’s Cobb’s Barns, South Truro (1930–33), estimated at $8 million–$12 million, and Paul Gauguin’s Nature morte avec pivoines de chine et mandoline (1885), estimated at $10 million–$15 million.

Other significant works include Renoir’s Paysage de bord de mer, estimated at $1 million–$1.5 million, and Cézanne’s Sous-Bois (around 1882-84), estimated at $250,000–$350,000.

The Legacy of Ambroise Vollard

Ambroise Vollard, a central figure in shaping modern art, was a significant supporter and champion of artists like Gauguin, Renoir, and Cézanne.

Sotheby’s previously auctioned 140 works from the Vollard collection in 2010, fetching a total of €23 million.

These pieces had been discovered in a bank vault of Société Générale in Paris in 1979, leading to a decade-long legal dispute over their ownership.

Potential Backlash and Future Implications

The deaccessioning of artworks by the Whitney Museum, though in line with the AAMD guidelines, could still generate controversy within the art world.

Critics often argue that selling important pieces from a museum’s collection can diminish the institution’s cultural and historical significance.

Furthermore, there is a concern that the deaccessioned works may end up in private collections, making them inaccessible to the public.

In recent years, several high-profile deaccessioning attempts have faced backlash.

For example, in 2018, the Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts was criticized for selling Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950) and 39 other works to raise funds for its endowment and facilities.

Critics argued that the museum’s decision violated the public trust and the AAMD guidelines, even though the proceeds were used for the institution’s financial stability.

Similarly, in 2020, the Baltimore Museum of Art received criticism for its plan to sell three significant works, including Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper (1986).

The museum withdrew the artworks from auction after facing backlash from art historians, curators, and critics, who argued that the sale would irreparably harm the museum’s reputation.

In the case of the Whitney Museum, it is essential to monitor public response and potential backlash, as well as any impact on the museum’s reputation.

While the museum’s decision to deaccession the artworks may be in accordance with AAMD guidelines, it remains to be seen how the art world and the public will respond to the sale of these significant pieces.

Craig Miller

Craig Miller

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