Letter calls for Baltimore Museum of Art sale to be blocked

A group of 23 prominent supporters of the Baltimore Museum of Art, including former trustees of the BMA and the nearby Walters Art Museum, wrote to Maryland Atty. General Brian Frosh and Secretary of State John C. Wobensmith to demand that they intervene to stop the impending sale of paintings from the museum’s collection.

In a stifling and argued six-page letter, opponents describe the plan as fraught with potential conflicts of interest and procedural irregularities. Many reflect on financial matters, claiming that “the BMA has not sufficiently exercised its fiduciary duty in evaluating work and seeking competition to maximize the proceeds of the sale.”

The letter further accuses that the private sale of Andy Warhol’s monumental painting “The Last Supper”, acquired for the museum’s permanent collection over 30 years ago, “is probably sold, or has already been sold, to a bargain price. “

Warhol’s 1986 canvas is said to have been guaranteed for $ 40 million in a private sale through auction house Sotheby’s. A comparable painting by Warhol from the same series sold at a Christie’s auction in 2017 for over $ 60 million.

A firestorm erupted this month when BMA director Christopher Bedford announced that more than $ 73 million in contemporary art from the permanent collection would be liquidated to create an endowment intended to increase salaries and employee benefits of the museum, as well as to purchase the supplies needed to store and maintain for the remainder of the museum’s collection.

The plan includes purchasing additional artwork from a $ 10 million fund that will be set aside for sale. The BMA collection comprises some 95,000 works of art, including what is reputed to be the largest collection of works by Henri Matisse in the world.

The letter was prepared by Laurence J. Eisenstein, a lawyer in Washington, DC and a former director of BMA who previously served as chairman of the committee that acquires works of art for the institution. The signatories include former BMA board chair Constance R. Caplan as well as five former members of the museum’s contemporary art acquisitions committee.

The letter further claims that members of the museum’s curatorial staff voted to approve the sale of the art, even though they were eligible for the salary increases and benefits envisioned in the plan. Bedford, the director of the museum, “put conservation staff in an untenable position where they could not avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest”, accuse opponents.

“We understand that the unanimous conservative support reported by the BMA for [the sale] was essential for many of the membership committee and directors who subsequently voted to approve the withdrawal, ”the letter reads.

Assignment is the term used for the formal removal of a work of art from a museum’s permanent collection.

A spokesperson for the museum said the museum had not received a copy of the letter. [On Thursday afternoon the museum issued a statement denying any legal problems with the sales.]

Heading for auction at Sotheby’s at the end of the month, “1957-G” by Clyfford Still, a wall of rocky colors by the prominent abstract expressionist painter, and “3”, a curvy abstraction from 1987 by minimalist Brice Marden.

Always lived and worked in Maryland for almost 20 years before his death in 1980 at the age of 75, donating the painting to his local art museum in 1969. Marden is 82 and works in New York City ; it is very unusual for a museum to sell off the art of a living artist. Warhol died in 1987 following emergency gallbladder surgery.

Laura J. Boyer