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?

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.

More recent economic history is played out in parallel in art sales. In the 1980s, Japanese financial institutions were buying up Impressionist works, and breaking records with the prices paid, including the $40 million spent on Van Gogh's Sunflowers in 1987. The bursting of Japan's financial bubble put paid to that; similarly, the collections of some US hedge fund billionaires are now up for sale. Mega-collector Steve Cohen, whose firm SAC Capitol Advisors recently made a guilty plea on insider trading charges, has been auctioning large chunks of his famous collection, including works by Gerhard Richter and Brice Marden.

Russia came back into the fray with mega-rich oligarchs such as Roman Abramovic, along with his long-time partner Daria Zhukova, listed in's 2013 countdown of the world's top collectors. And now Qatar is entering the fray. As Murray says, "the art world today is a globalised affair. You can't be too protective."

Of course, many of the examples listed above are private collectors, but public ones are not immune to financial crises. In the bankrupt city of Detroit, pressure is growing on the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) to sell off all, or part of its collection to fund the struggling city. Christie’s is valuing the collection, which includes works by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Rothko, Tintoretto, Gauguin and Picasso. Sales such as these evoke an “if we’re selling the family silver, all is lost” response, which can cloud the question of what is the best thing to do. So should Detroit sell?

While Murray feels sympathy for the DIA, he says it could be seen as an opportunity to repatriate some interesting works. In the stores of DIA, still in packing cases, never shown and never seen, is one of Ireland's grandest 17th-century carved staircases (see panel). Eyrecourt Castle in Co Galway, abandoned in the early 1900s, is now a ruin, but in the 1950s, US newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst bought the staircase, and donated it to the DIA. One might argue that he also saved it, but it is difficult to see what good it is doing in the basements of Detroit.

Should Irish galleries sell
All that begs the question: should Irish galleries and museums sell works, if not entire collections? In the art world, this process is called deaccessioning, and it's something museums are often coy about. This is partly because to sell off art works implies you may have made a mistake in buying them. Museum collections also provide a sense of legacy and continuity.

Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) director Sarah Glennie takes a balanced view. Imma, presently, isn't allowed to deaccession, but, says Glennie, it's "something we are discussing". The danger, she says, is that you may want the flexibility to sell in order "to make an amazing purchase, but the decisions may not always be your own". She describes a potential situation in which a museum may have pressure put on it to sell off its masterpieces in order to fix, say, a leaky roof. "I would only support [deaccession] if it was to allow new acquisitions," she says.

What about being priced out of the market? “Imma went from an acquisitions budget of €600,000 a year to nothing,” says Glennie. There is now a small amount of money available again, which the museum is focusing on Irish artists and Irish galleries. The danger is that the opportunity is being missed to buy the work of artists while their prices are affordable.

Ten years ago, you could have bought a Francis Bacon painting for £8 million; 20 years ago, far less, and that's when the wise museums were buying his paintings.

The top end of the art market is fuelled by fashion, and stratospheric prices are often a tool to convince billionaire buyers that they are getting quality art. Museum buying on the other hand is driven by expertise and instinct, so the artists that good curators are buying now are likely to be the ones hyped in a decade’s time. The real problem is, not of collections being broken up and sold, but cash-strapped museums having to watch from the sidelines while the next generation of artists move out of reach of their purchasing power. On the other hand, as history shows, and the fortunes of countries rise and fall, art moves around the world and very little is lost forever.



Harry Clarke’s 1930 masterpiece,

The Geneva Window

, in the Wolfsonian Museum, Miami Florida. Commissioned by the Irish government for the League of Nations Building in Geneva, but rejected for its “scandalous” depictions, and ultimately sold by the Clarke family to Wolfson in 1988.


CS Lewis’ wardrobe: much of the archive of the Belfast-born author, together with his dining room table and the family wardrobe, carved by his grandfather, is at the Marion E Wade Center in Illinois.


The Eyrecourt Staircase: 17th-century carved masterpiece in storage at the Detroit Institute of Arts since 1950s.


Louis le Brocquy’s

A Family

was offered to the municipal gallery in Dublin (now the Hugh Lane) in 1952. It was rejected, went on to win a prize at the 1956 Venice Biennale, and was subsequently bought by the Nestlé Foundation. The painting hung in its Milan headquarters until 2001, when

Lochlann Quinn

bought it for £1.7 million and donated it to the National Gallery of Ireland.