Scandal of Paintings Sold for a Mere Pittance by Dalya Alberge

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Scandal of Paintings Sold for a Mere Pittance

by Dalya Alberge

Works of art worth tens of millions of pounds today have been sold off quietly by museums over the past 50 years for a few pounds. British art institutions such as the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Exeter City Museum have disposed of pictures by masters such as Van Dyck and Henri Fantin Latour . They were sold without public notice, dismissed as too unimportant to keep. Among the most serious cases is a painting by the 19th-century master, John William Waterhouse . In 1965, the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro sold it for £200 ($300) to a private collector; today it is worth more than £5 million ($7.5 million).

"Most of the works were sold off as they were deemed to be artistically worthless", Christopher Wright, a leading Old Masters scholar, said. He discovered evidence of the sales while preparing a nationwide study of British art for Yale University Press. "They have been sold off without public notice," he said. "Many of the museums didn't dare make it public. They've all been proved wrong."

Mr Wright expressed disbelief at the decision of the Exeter museum to "rape" its collection of 160 works - "there is no other word to describe the destruction of an entire museum collection". The auctions, which involved selling works for as little as £5 ($7.50), included Waterhouse's Consulting the Oracle, four paintings by Fantin-Latour and one by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema . Caroline Worthington, fine art curator at Exeter, said that the sale took place at Christie's in 1954, "when High Victorian art was deeply unfashionable ... We would like them back, most definitely." "We're talking household names", Mr Wright said, adding that many were bought by the heavyweight dealers Agnews and Colnaghi, who clearly appreciated the importance of the artists, even if the museums did not.

Tamsin Daniel, Truro's curator of art and exhibitions, said that the museum had needed money for storage and a lift. She conceded that the loss was painful. The Waterhouse went to a private collector bidding at Christie's. The £200 ($300) it cost him, she said, was "a bit different to what Andrew Lloyd Webber paid recently for a Waterhouse": £6.6 million ($9.9 million).

Leeds City Art Gallery and Museum, Mr Wright was told by an insider, actually disguised the provenance of works when selling them through an auction house. "They were described as property of Madame X," he said. "The sales were clandestine. They didn't say Leeds was de-accessioning. They were all Victorian pictures purchased from the Royal Academy. They got rid of dozens." Nigel Walsh, curator of exhibitions, expressed surprise at the news, denying that the gallery had sold anything. Nor did Evelyn Silber, its director, know anything about it until contacted by The Times. She later discovered that 37 paintings (nearly all Victorian) had been sold in 1939 under the then director, Philip Hendey, who went on to head the National Gallery in London. The Fitzwilliam in Cambridge sold more than 200 works in the 1950s. Although they were marked "property of the Fitzwilliam" in the catalogs, they were mixed up with hundreds of other lots, Mr Wright said. "They put them through the salerooms in dribs and drabs."

Mr Wright said that the Fortune-teller with Soldiers "was sold off as a copy, but it has since been published as the real thing worth millions".

Craig Hartley, a Fitzwilliam curator, said: "In retrospect, this seems a horrific thing to have done." Among other institutions to have sold off paintings, Mr Wright said, were the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich; the Cooper Art Gallery in Barnsley; the Holbourne Museum of Art in Bath; and the Birmingham City Art Gallery.

Note from the ARC Staff

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, allegedly did worse than this with the great collection bequeathed to them by Catherine Lorrilard Wolf during the 1950's and 60's. The deacquisitioning of 19th century art works was by no means atypical in this period, but took place in museums around the world.