Consigned by the debt-ridden Delaware Museum of Art, Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was the top lot of Christie’s sale of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite and British Impressionist art in London last week.
The £2.5m hammer price was an auction record for the artist but
was still well below the £5m-8m that had been estimated. It appears
likely that expectations had been downgraded in the run-up to the
sale but the museum, which is seeking to repay a $19.8m bond debt,
must have been prepared to accept a much lower return than had
originally been envisaged.
On the day, only one party was seemingly bidding - an anonymous
buyer represented in the room by a Christie's specialist.
While the museum said the work was one of up to four items in
their collection that needed to be sold "to prevent the museum's
closure and to repay the bond debt", there was plenty of public
criticism stateside for decommissioning works in this way. Indeed,
this issue clearly did nothing to help the sale in London and may
have well deterred interest, especially any institutional interest,
that could have otherwise emerged.
The American Alliance of Museums held a meeting of its
accreditation commission on the day of the sale and unanimously
voted to remove the Delaware Art Museum's accredited status. A
statement read: "The collections of accredited museums must be
unencumbered and cannot be treated as disposable financial assets."
It also stated that the decision to "deaccession and to sell works
from the collections for purposes other than acquisitions or direct
care of collections" was "in direct violation of museum standards
The Association of Art Museum Directors in the US also released
a statement the day after the auction saying it was "deeply
troubled and saddened" by the sale and added that it had "reached
out to the Delaware Art Museum's leadership on multiple occasions
in the hope that we could offer assistance in investigating
alternatives to the planned sale". They have now advised their
members to stop loaning works to the Delaware museum or
collaborating on exhibitions.
The picture itself was a smaller version of Isabella and the
Pot of Basil which is in the Laing Art Gallery in
Newcastle. Dating from 1867, the 2ft x 15in (61 x 39cm) oil on
canvas here was billed by the auctioneers as "one of the very few
works by Holman Hunt likely to come for public sale".
The estimate, however, was well in excess of the previous record
auction record for the artist - the £1.7m seen for The Shadow
of Death, an oil on panel sold at Sotheby's back in 1994.
The result has now led to speculation that the museum will have
to sell more works in order to raise the required capital.
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