Museum veterans add integrity to different auction houses

Museum veterans add integrity to different auction houses
A change of job seems to be the trend among museum veterans these days. A number of very senior staff members at museums have moved or are in the throes of moving over to the commercial sector, marking a lowering of boundaries between the profitable and non-profit sectors. In today’s art scenario, world-class museums often created by private collectors have nothing for sale. To raise funds, museum directors have to book sections at art fairs, where sales can take place.

Museum veterans with their vast network of contacts appear to be much in demand at auction houses. They have the ability of identifying artworks that are ready for sale and details of the work in question, including the names of the owners. While these veterans help in adding integrity to the auction houses that they join, there is also the matter of earning better salaries at auction houses. According to the Association of Art Museum Directors, museum directors earn about $ 230,000, per annum, while the salaries at auction houses may touch seven figures!

The movement from museums to more commercial jobs seems to have begun as far back as the 1970s. But what has probably changed is the visibility of such assignments. Lise Dennison, who left the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2007, made headlines when she became the chairman of Sotheby’s Americas. Amin Jaffer joined Christie’s Asian Art department, also in 2007, after 12 years at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Eric Shiner, former director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, has moved to Sotheby’s as senior vice president at its fine art division, where he will focus on private sales of the 20th and 21st century. Another move that is about to take place could certainly affect one of the world’s most popular museums, The Victoria & Albert Museum — crowned ‘museum of the year’ by the Arts Council England. The V&A is about to lose its director Martin Roth, who has been at the helm for the past five years. Born in Germany, Roth is known as a committed European and has decided to quit V&A later this year. Interestingly, the Arts Council England has also decided to appoint a leading museum personality to head their operations. On February 7, 2017, Nicholas Serota, director of Tate for 28 years, is expected to take on the mantle of chairman, Arts Council England. Under Serota’s leadership, the Tate was totally transformed in every possible way — Tate Modern was launched in 2002 and before that in 1993, Tate St Ives and Tate Liverpool. More recently, a wing of what was the Tate Gallery in Millbank, is now known as Tate Britain.

Serota’s move comes at a time when major artworks located in England might be sold by owners to overseas buyers. All major works of art require permission before they can be exported. For instance, one of the finest British miniatures (1610-14) by Isaac Oliver has been bought by the National Trust for 2.1 million pounds. The painting was valued at 5.2 million pounds but the price was lowered due to tax concessions at a sale to a public collection. The painting depicts Edward Herbert, first Baron Herbert of Cherbury, and this move has made it possible for the painting to remain on display at the National Trust-owned Powis Castle in Wales. The National Gallery in London is keen on buying the painting, Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap (1530) by Italian master Pontormo, which was sold to an overseas buyer for more than 30 million pounds last year. The seller had paid inheritance tax before the new owner applied for an export licence. The National Gallery is hoping that the treasury will refund the tax paid, to help in keeping the portrait in the UK.

(The writer is an author and a former art gallery owner)

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