Can museums sell their works of art to survive the crisis?

At the Musée d’Orsay, works of firefighter art bought in the 19th century were forgotten for decades before coming back into fashion.

In the United States, museums have just obtained the blessing of the powerful association of directors of art museums to sell works for the sole purpose of filling their coffers, a way to bail out to survive the pandemic that deprives them of visits, said CBS on Monday.

American museums, unlike the French, already had the right to put pieces from their collections back on the market, but only on condition that it was to buy other works, which is what the Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, has done, having in recent years divested itself of several pieces from its archives to acquire more works by women and artists of colour.

More financial flexibility

All other sales, especially those intended to pay the bills, were strongly condemned by the American Museum Directors Association, which has therefore changed its position in times of epidemic and for the next two years to give them more “financial flexibility”.

Nothing of the kind to be expected in France, since since 2002 and the law on museums, works of art in public collections are inalienable. This is a French peculiarity: the 1200 museums in France, with the exception of a dozen private museums, do not own their works. It is the State that owns them.

This principle of inalienability has already been questioned, notably in 2015, in a report by the Assembly’s Cultural Affairs Committee, whose authors defended the possibility for museums in France, as in the United States and Germany, to sell paintings piled up in their reserves.This was, for example, the case for a long time with Titian’s Venus du Pardo, among 250,000 other objects and works stored in flood-prone storerooms under the Louvre museum.

Little chance of changing French inalienability

But the law is “very unlikely to change,” says Martel, “it’s a controversial subject, and if only to ensure the long-term survival of donated collections, the state must be able to guarantee that the works donated will remain in a public museum in an imprescriptible way,” says Martel.

Small museums in difficulty

And French museums have less need than American museums to find funds quickly, say the specialists. In France, the government allocates operating and acquisition budgets to them every year,” says Christie’s. “In France, the government allocates operating and acquisition budgets to them every year.

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