He Comes to Praise the Met (1973)
New York Times, June 2, 1973, Sect. 2, p. 24. Includes response to reply by John L. Hess in the New York Times, July 1, 1973, Section 2, p. 19.
Compelled by the firm conviction that when everyone agrees in the art world there is much to be said for the other side, I have studied more than 100 separate writings - some 200,000 words - about the great Metropolitan Museum art-selling scandal, or disaster, or menace, or catastrophe, according to what you read. Some balance could be provided, especially on these pages. To do this, I have taken the main points of the critics one by one.
Museums should not sell their art. It is a breach of the public trust.
On the contrary, not to sell, under certain circumstances, would be such a breach.
The art in the Met does not "belong to the public." It is held in trust. A trust is a form of confidence reposed (in this case) in a private corporation which legally owns art objects to be used for the public good. The Met's function is to bring art to the public in the best way possible.
Now it happens that the Met receives gifts which are not useful for this public function. These gifts cost the taxpayer money because the donor deducts the value of the gift from taxable income, thereby reducing tax paid into the Federal treasury. Therefore not to sell such a gift would be a breach of public trust because the museum would be using public money for no public benefit; in fact, more public money would be needed to store and maintain the work. Not to accept the gift would also be a breach of trust because the museum would gratuitously turn away support from its public function.
But they should not sell their masterpieces.
Though the Met has the right to sell anything it wants to sell, it is not selling any "masterpieces" and it is not degrading the collection. It sells some things, often very good things, only to get others, always and only with the clear intent to improve the collection as a whole. Over the years this process has helped form the splendid collection the Met presently has. Guiding this process is one of the first duties of the director. The Met's space and money are specifically limited. It cannot and should not be an art warehouse.
What if the museum receives a limited bequest?
Limited bequests specify what is to be done with a work. They should be illegal, because they can render reduced taxes for no public benefit, as we have seen. Most of the paintings recently sold by the Met came from the bequest of Adelaide de Groot. Apparently the Met spent some time convincing Mrs. de Groot to change the terms of her original bequest, which would not have allowed the sale of any of the paintings, because many of them were not museum quality by anyone's standards. Other works obtained by sale and trade of the de Groot paintings are designated as part of the bequest, so the memorial remains intact and the donor's wish to give her art to the people of New York is heeded
But taste changes. What if they make a mistake?
This notion has been misused. Taste does not "change," as such, rushing mindlessly from one thing to the next. It works as a constant, through time, applying persistent pressure on the whole body of art, slowly weeding out, leaving very little to come down to use as great art. Apparent changes in taste are more distinct on lower levels of quality and in the revaluation of newer art as it ages. Thus an institution investing over time takes much less risk selling good art than by not buying or keeping inferior art.
This is very important and very basic. Museums with the highest standards have the toughest job: buying newer or specialized art which is not fully appreciated and selling older art presently popular but inferior, all for a public which criticizes both ends of the process. Look at a Met catalogue from early in the century; see the legions of European academics then so popular, now so utterly forgotten. Where are those paintings? We hope they were well sold. They are not worth much now and never will be. What if subsequent board and directors had sat on that stuff, in deference to popular taste? Wouldn't we curse them now? Any number of Impressionists, or Picassos or Matisses, could have been had for the price of one Bouguereau, or Bonheur, or less. This is the real problem, and it is a continuing one.
Furthermore, the Met is not choosing between styles and schools but between one picture and another of an artist, where an esthetic decision can be more secure. They have a better Rousseau and better van Goghs and Modiglianis than those they sold. The sold Modigliani is a poor painting if not a fake. It is precisely in the art of the last hundred years that informed taste must move with quick decision. There is so much indifferent high-priced art to be sold, and so much first-rate art, with zooming prices, to be bought.
But there must be some control, some form of restraint. Perhaps the Met should sell only to other museums. At least, they should tell us what they are selling.
Official control would be dreadful. That should be obvious. The Met is not a temple hoarding relics. It is a living organization which must remain free to grow and change, to sell art, even good art, and even to make mistakes, just because its expressed and demonstrated intent is to improve the collection and bring us the best art it can. This cannot be done by wrangling committees, stolid bureaucrats and academic in-fighting. It would be easy enough to sit and smile and say isn't this a grand place, let's leave it just as it is. But that is what the future condemns, not the sale of a few paintings.
Forcing the Met to sell only to other museums, or in any other restricted market, would be unfair and unfortunate. Museums must compete and make their way just like any other entity in a free society. The trustees and the staff of the Met are and should be responsible for their museum and work for its good and the good of its constituency. Anything else is, and should be secondary. In this way, the public ultimately benefits. And I can't see other museums knocking themselves out to buy the Met's rejects!
As for secrecy: that's a crime only to journalists. Public disclosure damages the museum, not only from the inevitable carping but also because the museum must say, in effect, "Here's some art that's not good enough for us, who wants it?" That is hardly the way to get the best deal.
Well, they didn't get the best deal. They should have sold at auction.
The certainty of high prices at auction is one of our new cultural myths. Auction houses get spectacular prices for the few works everyone wants; for these, they provide a "critical mass" of competition. This is what we read about in the papers. But we do not read about the other 99 percent; ordinary works getting middling or even lower prices. The best bargains at auctions are the middle price range of their class.
A Rembrandt self-portrait was sold at Sotheby's recently. Most experts agree it is genuine. How much did it bring? Two or three million? No, $225,000. Why? Because it was a mediocre Rembrandt. There are mediocre Rembrandts, just as there are mediocre Picassos, Renoirs, Modiglianis, and Rousseaus. But what if the Met had owned it, and sold it to Marlborough Gallery for, say, $500,000? The howls would have been heard in Hong Kong.
Everyone says $1.5 million was too cheap for the Rousseau Tropics and the van Gogh Olive Pickers. Have they forgotten that several months before the Met sale, a similar Rousseau, Paysage Exotique, complete with monkeys eating fruit in the jungle, was sold at Parke-Bernet for the record auction price of $775,000, and that a perfectly respectable van Gogh oil, Paysanne en Bleue sold in October, 1970, for $110,000? Van Gogh prices vary very much with quality; Norton Simon's L'Hôpital de Saint Paul brought $1.2 million, but that is van Gogh at is best. The Olive Pickers is not. With this auction information at hand, the Met naturally thought Marlborough's offer quite generous.
But they still got cheated. Marlborough got six modern masters for just one David Smith and a Diebenkorn, and they sold the Rousseau and van Gogh for millions.
Every experienced collector knows it is best to trade a number of ordinary items for the "best of class." The traded paintings were big names but small quality and were redundant in the collection. The Smith Becca is the prize piece of the greatest American sculptor. The trade was just fine.
Marlborough is a very successful gallery. It knows the pulse of the market as the Met cannot. It is clear that Marlborough, and galleries like it, can get top dollar for less than top quality. If they knew about a new market, and thereby made an excessive profit at the Met's expense, then this is a shame. Perhaps in the future they could sell on commission, taking only a small percentage to help the museum. There are many alternatives. All of the energy of criticism applied here would help the Met rather than hinder it.
The Met has been rather awkward in its own defense (which may speak for its sincerity) and the anticipated "white paper" may be just more grist for the mill. Recent journalistic excesses trading on popular sentiment against bigness, secrecy, "elitism" and specialized competence, will, to some degree, cripple a great museum's ability to function freely. Also, worried donors, confused by all the fuss, are holding back bequests, not only from the Met but from all museums. It is not the Met's fault, it is the fault of exaggerated publicity. It should not happen, and if we stick to straight reporting and look at the whole record objectively, it won't. The Metropolitan Museum is going to come out of all this looking better than most of us think.
John L. Hess replied to this article in a letter printed in the New York Times on July 1, 1973. The letter is not yet reproduced here. Bannard replied on the same page:
1. It is my understanding that Theodore Rousseau tried to persuade Miss de Groot not to leave her entire collection to the Met. Many of the works were so bad that none of the designated museums wanted them anyway: pictures of clowns and puppy dogs and such like, what I call "Palm Beach" art. Miss de Groot's will clearly left the Met free to sell whatever it chose to sell. She obviously knew what she was doing.
2. In a front-page article in The Times of Jan. 25th 1973, Mr. Hess wrote that Mr. Balay appraised the six paintings at "$346,000-351,000." In the same article Mr. Hess wrote that Harold Diamond had made an offer, not an appraisal, of $209,000 for the same paintings, and that Mr. Balay was unaware that there was an almost identical and clearly better version of the Modigliani, which led to suspicions that it was a fake; Mr. Hess left these facts out of his letter.
3. According to my eye and experience, each of these paintings is a very poor example of its type. But Mr. Balay was not judging quality, he was judging value. A bad painting can still be valuable. Mr. Hess must know this!
The Met sold the Modigliani thinking it might be a fake and said so. Marlborough disagreed, and so did other experts, and they took it. The painting was not sold under the "imprimatur" of the Met if they said it might be a fake. Good grief!
It is the Met's job to serve the public. Would they do so by keeping the Modigliani? Would another museum want it? What would Mr. Hess have them do with it, put it on the wall labeled "Bad Modigliani"?
4. Sequence does not prove cause. I can write that the Met is selling all its Rembrandts, and when they don't, claim credit. The Met maintains that it decided not to sell these paintings, all on its own, sometime before Mr. Canaday blew his whistle. One can choose not to believe this, but until question becomes fact, it cannot be discussed sensibly. That is why I chose not to discuss it.
If Mr. Hess is going to write about art, he ought to go out and exercise his eye as much as he does his typewriter. Picasso's Woman in White is not a masterpiece, but it is a very popular picture. I would guess that is why the Met kept it.
Mr. Hess writes that I am mistaken on a number of points of fact and that my inferences are absurd. What facts: that I said "Mrs. de Groot" instead of "Miss de Groot"? What inferences?
The comparison to Watergate is silly, but illustrates the hysterical atmosphere of this debate. Contempt for democracy indeed! Democracy was founded on reason and thrives on it. The sooner reason prevails in this matter, the better.