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 and ethics".
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.