As Prices Rise, Museums Sell Paintings to Afford Others


To update collections in today's high-priced art market, museums increasingly must put a price on the priceless.

Curators haven't quite reached the level of "I'll trade you two Picassos for a Van Gogh," but museum boards are being forced to sell off some works to buy others. Budgets are simply dwarfed by the exponential growth in the price of auctioned art works.

"In today's art market, museums have a hard time buying," said Lori Starr, spokeswoman for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for example, has an acquisitions budget of about $2 million. In a market where a Vincent van Gogh painting was recently sold for nearly $54 million, that doesn't go far.

Thursday, the museum will put eight American paintings on the auction block to raise money to buy other American paintings. The 19th and 20th Century paintings for sale include works by John Singer Sargent, Maurice Prendergast, Albert Bierstadt and George Inness.

"In the best of all possible worlds, we could keep every painting and be able to add through the regular purchase fund," said Theodore E. Stebbins, the museum's curator for American paintings. "It used to be you could go down and buy wonderful things on the market (with $2 million.) Now you can't."

Stebbins expects each painting to bring at least $3.6 million at the auction at Sotheby's in New York--nearly twice the museum's acquisition budget.

The Getty museum planned to auction about 15 works today from J. Paul Getty's private collection, including paintings by Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas. The expected $13 million to $16 million from the Sotheby's auction will go toward new purchases.

The sale of art to buy art is a "very established, regular procedure," especially as a way of weeding out works of no great interest to the public, said John Ross, spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

"If something has not been shown in 30 years, or no other institute has asked to borrow it in 30 years . . . then it can be removed from the list of works in the museum and put up for auction," he said Monday.

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