Delaware Art Museum sanctioned for selling painting at auction

The Assn. of Art Museum Directors sanctioned the Delaware Art Museum on Wednesday for selling its 1868 William Holman Hunt painting “Isabella and the Pot of Basil” this week to help make debt payments and build its endowment.

The painting, part of the museum’s permanent collection, sold for $4.25 million at Christie’s, an incident that left the museum directors association “deeply troubled and saddened.”

“Art museums collect works of art for the benefit of present and future generations,” read the statement from the AAMD, which has long said artworks should be deaccessioned only to generate funds to acquire other works of art and to enhance a collection. “Responsible stewardship of a museum’s collection and the conservation, exhibition, and study of these works are the heart of a museum’s commitment to its community and to the public.”


More than 240 museum directors throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico are affiliated with the association. In sanctioning the Delaware Art Museum, AAMD asked its members to suspend all loans of artworks as well as any exhibition collaborations with the Delaware Art Museum until sanctions have been removed.

Also on Wednesday, in a unanimous vote the American Alliance of Museums -- which includes all types of museums, not just art -- rescinded the Delaware Art Museum’s accredited status, saying that by selling the Hunt work, the museum is in “direct violation of museum standards and ethics.”

“Accredited museums have a fundamental fiduciary and ethical responsibility to care for and maintain their collections and determine their disposition following national standards,” the organization’s statement said. “The collections of accredited museums must be unencumbered and cannot be treated as disposable financial assets.”

In response to a Times request for comment, Delaware Art Museum Chief Executive Mike Miller said in an emailed statement that the museum was not surprised by the sanctions but was still “disappointed.”

“The Trustees take very seriously their obligation to hold art for the benefit of the public, but they felt that their ultimate obligation was to keep the museum open and thriving,” Miller wrote.

“While the decision to sell art continues to be one that is very hard to bear, deciding to write the final chapter of a museum with a century-long cultural heritage was, in comparison, unbearable. The closure of the Delaware Art Museum, which has become a leading community and educational resource for people of all ages, would without question be a much deeper and permanent wound to inflict upon a loyal and supportive constituency.”