Delaware Art Museum names first piece up for sale

A Pre-Raphaelite painting by William Holman Hunt will be the first painting to be sold from the Delaware Art Museum’s collection as the museum tries to get out of debt.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil will be up for sale at Christie’s auction house in London on June 17. The painting was originally purchased by the museum in 1947 using general art acquisition funds.

In late March, the museum announced plans to sell up to four paintings as part of an effort to raise $30 million. The bulk of that money would then be used to repay the balance of the museum’s $19.8 million bond debt. The remaining funds would be used to replenish its endowment.

The decision to sell art has drawn criticism from some in the art community, including the president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, Timothy Rub, who is CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Besides violating a fundamental principle of the museum community, Rub warned that the decision to monetize art begins museums down a slippery slope.

“What if the next time a financial crisis or problem occurs at a museum like the Delaware Art Museum or another institution, is it an easy and convenient thing to sell another work of art to solve that problem?” Rub asked. “Eventually, one can imagine instances where a collection would be cannibalized.”

Museum officials say as many as three other works could also head to the auction block. It’s not yet known what other paintings are being considered for sale.

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WHYY’s Shirley Min explored the debate over art stewardship last month on First. You can watch her report at NewsWorks.org/Delaware.

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