Van Gogh for sale? DIA tiptoes into art auction market

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

The art world is buzzing, albeit quietly, about a prospective, voluntary sale of some Detroit Institute of Arts works — including an 1886 Van Gogh still life.

In the hubbub of Detroit's Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the prospect of selling off the DIA's collection was a key controversy. Selling even one painting to satisfy creditors or fund operations, DIA officials said then, could destroy the DIA's standing in the museum world.

The DIA triumphed when the so-called "grand bargain" ensured the museum would remain intact last year. Instead of selling any art, the museum pledged $100 million to help the city pay down debt.

The proposed sale of DIA works, reported in art publications, is intriguing because it marks the first time the museum has discussed selling art or art objects since the bankruptcy. "Trading up resumes," announced a headline in The Art Newspaper, a British online publication, in March. It reported that DIA director Graham Beal said, "We couldn't sell any works (until now) because it would have caused such confusion.' "

Confusion — or the pretense of it — immediately ensued. How could Detroit's museum propose to sell artwork, wrote Boston lawyer Nicholas O'Donnell, who authors the Art Law Report blog, "when so much coverage had been addressed to the idea of not selling?"

Donn Zaretsky, a New York tax lawyer, raised similar questions in his Art Law Blog in April. "I think it's a real issue.They gave the impression that art was held in the trust. If you can use the art to buy art, why not use it to sell streetlights?"

In the museum world, selling art is often described as "deaccessioning," a word that describes removing work from a collection, without any hint of commerce. Under museum world guidelines, selling art to buy other art — as the DIA is now doing — is acceptable, an ethical yet practical way to improve an institutional collection.

Beal made the situation more confusing in a telephone interview with The Detroit News on Wednesday. He said he had decided not to sell the Van Gogh, but to leave the resumption of sales to his successor. Beal is retiring from the museum June 30.

"Were I not leaving, we would be getting back into gear with deaccessioning," Beal said. Why was the plan to sell the Van Gogh being reported? "I had been talking to Sotheby's and I think word leaked out," Beal said. "When the bankruptcy was over, I talked to Sotheby's and decided that now isn't the time to do it."

But Beal had not publicly denied readying the Van Gogh for sale. And DIA spokeswoman Pamela Marcil acknowledged the possibility of offering it earlier Wednesday. Would Beal sell the painting if someone made him an offer? "It would have to be above the auction house estimated sale value," he said.

The legal art bloggers suggested Beal had backed off an earlier position that selling any art, under any circumstances, would cause irreparable harm to the museum. Beal insisted his position had been consistent: "We could not deaccession for any other reason than to buy art." Then the museum took a two-year bankruptcy pause.

Whether it's for sale right now or not, the Van Gogh in question gets no respect. Earlier plans to sell "Still Life with Carnations" were scuttled when at least one auction house deemed it a fake. Beal recently called it "klutzy." Donated to the museum by Catherine Kresge Dewey in 1990, it was designated by the donor to be sold, with the proceeds used to buy "classic modern art."

In one more linguistic twist, the Van Gogh was never formally "accessioned" into the DIA collection because it was slated for sale — but it is owned by the museum.

In his April 15 email to O'Donnell, the art blogger and lawyer, Beal wrote: "Whether or not the Van Gogh was accessioned into the collection would not make a difference in any decision about selling it and using the proceeds to enhance the collection with a superior piece of Modernist art."

In 2010, Beal displayed the questionable Van Gogh in a show titled "Fakes, Forgeries and Mysteries" alongside "Vase with Zinnias and Geraniums," an authentic flower painting. Beal was an advocate for the carnation painting, telling the Associated Press at the time: "All of the paints, all of the technique, everything is commensurate with the way Van Gogh was working at the time."

In his letter to Art Law Report, Beal says the painting has since been deemed acceptable by Sotheby's and Christie's. But he says that the museum has no agreement to sell it.

Detroit, the DIA and its Van Goghs — there are five — have gained renown over the bankruptcy years. With any luck, controversy and confusion will only add luster, and value, to Detroit's bargain basement Van Gogh.