Baltimore Museum of Art Cancels Sales of Three Paintings Amid Growing Controversy of Its Deaccessioning Plan

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York achieved a sell-through rate of 95%, totalling US$142.8m. Yet, the most attention-grabbing lot was not among those successfully sold. All eyes were on the two controversial lots consigned by the Baltimore Museum of Art, which were withdrawn the last minute before the sale.

The Baltimore Museum of Art’s decision to sell three paintings by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still and Andy Warhol drew nationwide controversy and the opposition of BMA donors and museum professionals to the sale. On Wednesday, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s board of trustees voted to pause the controversial auction. The two paintings scheduled to be sold at Sotheby’s New York, with a combined low estimate of US$22m, were withdrawn two hours before the sale.

The sale was hosted by Oliver Barker

Brice Maden (b. 1938). 3|Estimate: US$10m – 15m|Withdrawn

Clifford Still (1904-1980). 1957-G|Estimate: US$12m – 18m|Withdrawn

The two paintings, Brice Maden’s 3 (estimate: US$10-15m) and Clifford Still’s 1957-G (US$12m – 18m), carried the third and fourth highest estimates of the sale.

A total of five lots including these two paintings were withdrawn. The sale offered a total of 41 lots (excluding the withdrawn lots) with a combined estimate of US$128m. It pulled off a sell-through rate of 95% with only two lots unsold. The auction house had 20 out of 41 lots guaranteed with an irrevocable bid which makes sure they would surely sell.

Unfortunately, Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Black on Maroon), which carried the highest presale estimate, was not one of the guaranteed lots. It failed to sell and was bought-in. The total hammer price of US$118m fell short of the total presale estimate of US$128m.

Lot 13|Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Untitled (Black on Maroon)

Created in: 1958
Size: 182.9 x 114.3 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Marlborough Gallery, Inc., New York (acquired from the above in 1970)
  • Estate of the artist (acquired from the above in 1977)
  • Pace Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in 1980)
  • Private Collection, New York
  • Private Collection, New York (by descent from the above)
  • Christie's, New York, 15 May 2013, Lot 55 (consigned by the above)
  • Private Collection (acquired from the above sale)
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above 

Estimate: US$25,000,000 - 35,000,000

Lot 38|Alfa Romeo. B.A.T. 5, B.A.T. 7, B.A.T. 9D|The leading lot

Created in: 1953 (B.A.T. 5), 1954 (B.A.T. 7), 1955 (B.A.T. 9D)
Estimate: US$14,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer price: US$13,250,000
Price realised: US$14,840,000

The sale was led by Alfa Romeo’s B.A.T. 5, B.A.T. 7, B.A.T. 9D, a trio of Alfa Romeo automobiles from the 1950s estimated at US$14m-20m. They were hammered down at US$13.25m and sold for US$14.8m to RM Car Specialist Barney Ruprecht’s telephone client, setting an auction record for a post-war Alfa Romeo.

The trio, penned by Franco Scaglione and executed by Turin, Italy’s Carrozzeria Bertone, pioneered automotive aerodynamics while reasserting the primacy of Italian industrial design in the wake of World War II. They were respectively showcased in the Turin Auto Salon in 1953, 1954 and 1955.

After the sale, Sotheby’s reported nearly one million people had tuned in to watch the Livestream on its website, social media and TV Livestream. Maybe it was thanks to the controversial sale of two paintings from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Oliver Barker interacted with teams across different regions in the Livestreamed auction

The museum director, Christopher Bedford, planned to raise funds for diversity initiatives at the museum by selling the two paintings, as well as a monumental canvas from Andy Warhol’s ‘Last Supper’ series. The Warhol painting was scheduled to be sold in a private sale with an estimate of US$40m. All three paintings were expected to yield a total of US$65m, which would be used to acquire more work by underrepresented artists. The museum also hopes to increase staff salaries in a push for pay equity, offer free admission to special exhibits, and expand its evening hours.

The Baltimore Museum of Art

In 2018, Bedford deaccessioned seven paintings from its collection by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and other renowned white male artists to support future acquisitions of contemporary art by women and artists of colour.

This time, the deaccessioning was opposed by a number of museum supporters and community members. The act was allegedly breaching the public trust and a violation of Association of Art Museum Directors guidelines. The AAMD’s guidelines normally restricted the usage of deaccessioning funds to acquisitions, but not for operations costs. But they were relaxed in April to help institutions to cope with financial difficulty amid the COVID-19. The Baltimore Museum of Art, with a balanced budget, was being criticised of taking advantage of the rare opportunity.

The three blue-chip artworks were all considered significant properties in the museum collection. 3 is the only work by Maden the museum owns. 1957-G is one of only four gifts to museums that Clifford Still ever made. Last Supper is the most significant Warhol’s painting in the museum collection.

Last Supper by Andy Warhol

As the blowback has gone national, two former BMA board chairmen announced this week that they were pulling US$50m in promised donations to protest the sale. Meanwhile, two artist trustees have also resigned. In response to the mounting pressure, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s board of trustees cancelled the planned Warhol sale and withdrew the two paintings from the auction at the eleventh hour.

‘We can hope that museums will look for other ways to address the pressing needs of reform in support of Black Lives Matter. Their collections should be considered as critical to the institutions’ purpose, rather than as a source of unrestricted income.’ Maxwell L. Anderson, former director of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, told Artnet News.

Other highlights

Lot 7|Alex Calder (1898 – 1976). SUMAC 17|2nd top lot

Created in: 1955
Size: 105.7 x 192 x 100 cm

  • Gira Sarabhai, Ahmedabad (acquired from the artist in 1955)
  • Private Collection, Ahmedabad (by descent from the above circa 1970)
  • Christie's, New York, 10 May 2016, Lot 10B (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above sale

Estimate: US$6,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer price: US$7,000,000
Price realised: US$8,307,000

Lot 18|Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988). Black|3rd top lot

Created in: 1986
Size: 126.4 x 92.7 x 29.2 cm

  • Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
  • Akira Ikeda Gallery, Nagoya (acquired from the above)
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above in March 1996

Estimate: US$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer price: US$6,850,000
Price realised: US$8,134,650

Lot 8|Frank Stella (b.1936) Untitled|4th top lot

Created in: 1968
Size: 174.9 x 174.9 cm

  • J.L. Hudson Gallery, Detroit
  • Galerie Urban, Paris
  • Private Collection, New York
  • Edward Tyler Nahem, New York
  • Private Collection, Europe
  • L&M Arts, New York
  • Private Collection, Hong Kong (acquired from the above in 2012)
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above

Estimate: US$5,000,000 - 7,000,000
Hammer price: US$6,800,000
Price realised: US$8,077,200

Lot 19|Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988)  Jazz|5th top lot

Created in: 1986
Size: 125.7 x 92.7 x 28.6 cm

  • Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
  • Akira Ikeda Gallery, Nagoya (acquired from the above)
  • Gallery Schlesinger, New York (acquired from the above in 1988)
  • Twiga Collection, New York
  • N.Y.A.W., New York
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above in February 1995

Estimate: US$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer price: US$5,800,000
Price realised: US$6,928,200

Auction summary

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Contemporary Art Evening Auction
Auction date: 28 October 2020

Lots offered: 41
Lot sold: 39
Unsold: 2
Sold by lots: 95%
Sale total: US$142,840,700