NYPL to sell off Major Art Works to Raise Funds
First I just want to note the uncanny timing. Today is the first day of National Library week.
By CAROL VOGEL, NY Times
Published: April 11, 2005
The New York Public Library has decided to sell 19 works of art from its collection -including "Kindred Spirits," a widely admired landscape by the Hudson River School painter Asher B. Durand, and two seminal portraits of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart - so that it can better compete in acquisitions of important books and collections.
Sotheby's, which has been retained by the library, estimates that the works will sell for $50 million to $75 million. The transactions will be handled either privately or by public auction. Paul LeClerc, the library's president, said all of the money would go toward buying books, manuscripts and other works on paper and toward bolstering the library's endowment.
"We're not a museum," he said. "We don't have a staff devoted to paintings and sculptures. One of the thrills of running a great library is keeping up with the explosion of information. If we don't grow, we cannot maintain the claim that we are one of the greatest libraries in the world."
In the hope that many of the artworks can remain on public view in New York, library officials said, any New York institution that wishes to purchase a work will be given preferential payment terms. But it is unclear how much of a financial compromise officials are going to be willing to make to keep the artworks - paintings and sculptures by major American artists - in the area.
Art experts say the divestiture would be one of the largest sales of artworks by a major public institution in recent memory.
Over the last two decades, arts institutions in need of money have occasionally sought to part with valuable works to maintain their stated missions. For example, the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center sold of one of Leonardo's Codex manuscripts to Bill Gates for $30.8 million in 1994.
But to art experts, the library's attempt to sell its important artworks so it can devote itself more fully to acquiring significant books seems a turning point for the institution.
Still, Mr. LeClerc said the soaring cost of books and research materials, coupled with city and state cutbacks and the shrinkage of the library's endowment as a result of the tepid stock market performance after Sept. 11, 2001, left the library with little choice but to sell the artworks to continue expanding its collection. The library owns some 43.3 million research materials, including 15.5 million books.
Fund-raising at the library has remained strong, he said, but the library has sought to channel much of that money toward restoring the branch hours that it reduced for financial reasons after 9/11.
In 2000, the library's endowment hit a high of $530 million, but because of 9/11 it dropped to $426 million by the end of 2002. Since then, the endowment has grown to roughly what it was at four years ago. "But during those four years we lost a huge amount of purchasing power," Mr. LeClerc said. "There was not sufficient revenue to support growth."
"Inflation meant that with the same amount of money we were buying fewer books or passing up collections we wanted," he said. "Had we been growing at our projected 8 percent a year, we would have had $18 million" - versus the $13 million it had this year to buy books. It would take $100 million in new endowments well invested, he said, to generate the $5 million in income that the library needs.
Unlike museums, which generally charge admission to supplement revenue, public libraries are, of course, free. The New York Public Library relies on private sources for 70 percent of its financing, Mr. LeClerc said. Asked if he expected a benefactor would emerge to enable the library to keep the artworks, he simply said no.
He stressed that none of the money raised from the sale of the art would go toward daily operations. "It is crucial that we can provide a permanent source of revenue to purchase books so that we will be comprehensive for future scholars," he added.
The library has retained Sotheby's to decide on the best way to sell the art, whether at auction or privately. "We're not ruling anything out," said Dara Mitchell, director of Sotheby's American paintings department. Officials at the library said the trustees voted to pursue the sale in November but only recently settled on Sotheby's as the agent. Catherine C. Marron, chairwoman of the library, said the vote was unanimous.
Among the works to be sold - 15 paintings and 4 busts - the overwhelming star is Durand's "Kindred Spirits" (1849), which is named for a phrase in a Keats sonnet and depicts the painter Thomas Cole and the poet William Cullen Bryant standing on a rocky ledge overlooking the Catskills. That painting and most of the others being sold have been on public view in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor of the main library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.
"Kindred Spirits" was commissioned by Jonathan Sturges, one of Durand's most important patrons, as a gift for Bryant and remained in Bryant's family until it was donated to the library by his daughter, Julia, in 1904. Although Ms. Mitchell declined to say what she believed the painting was worth, experts in the field suggested that it could fetch $25 million to $30 million.
Also significant are the two portraits of Washington, which are currently on view through July 31 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington as part of the museum's Gilbert Stuart retrospective. The earlier of the two was owned by Alexander Hamilton and was painted in 1797 while Washington was serving his second term as president.
"Through deliberate review and thought over a couple of years we came to the conclusion that the sale of these paintings and sculptures was critical to maintaining our excellence," Ms. Marron said. "This is about how to best build our collections."
The value of American paintings has steadily risen in recent years as a group of collectors, led by Bill Gates, has quietly paid large sums for top-quality works as they come up for sale. (Mr. Gates paid $30 million for a Winslow Homer seascape in 1998.)
Mr. LeClerc said he would far prefer to see the library's gems go to a public institution. By selling them through Sotheby's, the library would be able to assess its options in time for Sotheby's December auction of American art.
Given the library's determination to remain among the world's greatest, it is unclear whether it will encounter public criticism of the sale.
"Sure there may be some politician who starts screaming that New York patrimony could be lost," said John Wilmerding, an American art scholar and Princeton University professor who was asked to advise the library. "But that would be unfair and unrealistic."
"If this has to happen, this is the way to go about it," he added.
While the 1797 Gilbert Stuart painting of Washington, which shows him half-length, seated and wearing a black velvet suit with a sword across his lap, recalls the Stuart's more famous "Lansdowne" portrait of Washington in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, this one has a seascape in the background, which is rare for Stuart. It was commissioned by William Kerin Constable, a New York merchant, as a gift for Hamilton, who was Washington's first secretary of the Treasury. The portrait remained in Hamilton's family, until Alexander Hamilton II, his grandson, bequeathed it to the Astor Library, which eventually became part of the New York Public Library in 1895. American painting experts estimated that the painting could easily sell for about $20 million.
The second portrait of Washington, dating from around 1800, is the first of four identical full-length paintings by Stuart.
Washington is depicted standing with his right hand resting on a document on a table and his other hand holding a sword. It is known as the Munro-Lenox Portrait, after two of its 19th-century owners: Peter Jay Munro, a lawyer, and James Lenox, the New York bibliophile and philanthropist. After Lenox's death, a library that he had established in 1870 merged with the Astor Library.
Another notable work being offered, by John Singleton Copley, is a portrait of Francis Deering Atkinson, the wife of Theodore Atkinson, secretary of the province of New Hampshire. Painted in 1765, it shows Mrs. Atkinson seated at a table playing with a pet squirrel on a chain.
Mr. LeClerc acknowledged that the library was selling the best of its collection. All that will be left are a few paintings, sculptures and pieces of furniture of far less value, he said.
Yet this is not the first time the library has disposed of artworks. During its more than 100-year history, it has periodically sold paintings to raise money. Over the last 60 years, 450 paintings and sculptures have either been sold or placed elsewhere by the library.
Its a sad era when we can pay celebrities huge amounts of money to endorse deoderant, athletes get paid millions to throw a ball (or try to catch one) and we are closing libraries, cutting back, and ending up short staffed.
Libraries are needed most when the economy is bad. If you are not working, you come to the library to find a job in one of our papers, sit in a warm room if you are homeless, and bring your children when you can't afford day care.
Happy First Day of National Library Week. Let this be a lesson.
Moral of this blog: I think this whole thing is a moral.