Painful break-up: why do we want art collections to stay together?
There’s an aversion to art galleries breaking up collections and selling their works – but is it a short-sighted policy, and should museums sell some of their pieces to help their home cities?
A member of Christie’s staff looks at Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucien Freud in London prior to its sale. Photograph: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty Images
Following the art auction results at Christie’s and Sotheby’s can feel like watching the Olympics before the clampdown on illegal drugs. It’s no fun, it seems, unless records are smashed left, right and centre, as ludicrous prices are racked up.
Most recently in the headlines was the November 12th sale of Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucien Freud. You could watch online at the Christie’s website, and see auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen skilfully coax extra millions out of mystery bidders who are happy to deal in figures the size of long-distance telephone numbers.
At $127 million dollars ($142,405,000 with buyer’s premium added), the Bacon was sold to art dealer William Acquavella, bidding on behalf of a client, and the inevitable consternation followed. Would this work disappear into a private collection, never to be seen again? Are art galleries and museums being priced out of the market for art?
The answer to both of these questions is: probably not. The buyer for the Bacon is rumoured to be Sheikha Mayassa, the sister of the emir of Qatar. She has a budget of about $1 billion a year for art, as head of the Qatar Museums Authority. If that’s true, then the work has actually come out of a private collection and is destined for public display in Qatar.
What this also shows is that art collections are formed, break up, and are re-formed all the time, and yet we seem to have a strange aversion to the process. When Adam’s was to sell the Bank of Ireland collection at auction in 2010, there was an outcry. Artist Robert Ballagh described the sale as “cultural vandalism” and, in the end, 25 of the most significant pieces from the collection were donated to the Irish Museum of Modern Art. In 2012, 39 works from the Allied Irish Banks collection went to the Crawford Gallery in Cork.
Why are we so dismayed when collections are on the point of being broken up? In a strange way, the idea of a collection seems to elevate the collector over the individual elements he or she has amassed. Peter Murray, director of the Crawford, agrees, saying that “as soon as a collection is broken up, a new one is formed, several in fact. Museums don’t have enduring and perpetual rights. Any that say they do are acting in an ahistorical manner.”
Napoleon knew what he liked
The history of collections is fascinating: you can track the rise and fall of world powers through the movement of art works. Napoleon raided the collections of the countries and places he plundered, including the Vatican, to bring his spoils home to the Louvre. Not all were returned following his fall.
Later, in the 1930s, the government of the USSR ordered the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) to sell selected masterpieces to fund the industrialisation of Russia. These included works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian and Raphael. American banker Andrew Mellon bought 21 of the works, which he donated to the US government in 1937, forming the core of the newly established National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The foundation of the US’s national art collection, then, is based on the taste of Catherine the Great.