Group demands Baltimore Museum of Art prove it has right to sell painting in controversial auction

Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
·3 min read

With just two days before a controversial scheduled auction, Maryland art lovers are demanding that the Baltimore Museum of Art prove it has the right to sell a painting by the abstract expressionist master Clyfford Still.

An email sent Friday to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and Maryland Secretary of State John Wobensmith asks the officials to subpoena records from the museum to confirm the terms under which the artist donated “1957-G” to the BMA in 1969. It also asks the state to “take action to halt the sale of of this painting until further research and review of the records can be undertaken.”

The museum denies it has done anything wrong and says the sale will proceed.

A copy of the email was sent to Sotheby’s Auction House, where “1957-G” is scheduled to go under the gavel Wednesday night at an estimated price of between $12 million and $18 million, according to the auction house website.

Also scheduled to be auctioned Wednesday is the painting “3” by the Minimalist New York artist Brice Marden. A third work, “The Last Supper” by Andy Warhol, is being sold privately by Sotheby’s and has a guaranteed minimum price of $40 million.

The museum is seeking to raise $65 million from the sale to fund several diversity initiatives aimed at making the BMA more accessible, from eliminating ticketed exhibitions to opening the museum one night a week to providing raises for employees. The sale, or “deaccession" in art world terminology, has prompted fierce, nationwide criticism.

Sotheby’s issued a statement Monday saying that the sale would proceed as planned, adding that it "stands in full support of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s thorough deaccession process and their pioneering plans for the future of the institution.”

“1957-G,” is a massive work that is 9 feet tall and about 7 1/4 u00bd feet wide. Jagged swaths of brown, black, and cream fill the frame and are accented with touches of yellow and orange. It is the only artwork in the BMA’s collection by Still, who lived in Carroll County from 1961 to 1980.

Friday’s email was sent from the office of the Washington attorney Laurence Eisenstein.

He argues that it would have been out of character for Still, who was “notorious for wanting complete control of his paintings,” to have allowed one of his works to be sold after he had donated it. The artist gave artworks to just four museums (including the BMA) during his lifetime, Eisenstein writes, and explicitly prohibited future sales at the other three: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York and Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum.

“There is no affirmative evidence of Still allowing any work, in any museum, to ever be deaccessioned,” Eisenstein writes. He adds that he has written to the BMA asking for copies of the 1969 paperwork spelling out the conditions under which Still’s donation was made, but has received no response.

“If the BMA has information supporting their basis for asserting that the Still can be sold then why are they not providing it?” the email asks. “The unwillingness of the museum to respond to these inquiries is problematic.”

BMA Director Christopher Bedford said in a statement there are “no restrictions” on the sale of the three paintings.

“While we appreciate the variety of presumptions being circulated, the BMA has, in collaboration with legal counsel, fully vetted the works selected for deaccession," he said.

Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, confirmed that officials have received Eisenstein’s email but added that it is office policy "not to confirm or deny the existence of investigations.”

In a related development, a meeting of the museum’s board of trustees that had been scheduled for Monday was called off a few hours before it was to have taken place. A spokeswoman described the meeting as “optional” and “an informal Q&A that was scheduled last week,” but didn’t say why the meeting was canceled.

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