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The Corcoran’s $40 Million Magic Carpet Ride
Monday, March 03, 2014

Last June, the Corcoran Gallery of Art sold a small collection of rugs at Sotheby's. One of them, a famed 17th century Persian rug known as the Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet, after its distinctive patterning, outdid all predictions: The piece sold for $33.8 million, well over the $5 to $7 million estimate. In all, the lot of 25 Middle Eastern and Asian rugs from the William A. Clark collection sold for $43.8 million, netting the Corcoran $38.4 million after buyer's premiums.

Ever since the Corcoran began considering dramatic solutions for its ongoing financial problems, the museum has maintained steadfastly that it is holding to its policy on deaccessioning works. In a June 2012 assembly at the Corcoran—held days after Washington City Paper first reported that the Corcoran was considering the sale of its 1897 Beaux-Arts building at 17th Street and New York Avenue NW—then-senior curator Paul Roth reassured members of the Corcoran community that the museum had not considered and would not consider deaccessioning works to make up its deficits.

There's no reason to suggest that the Corcoran has ever considered selling its art in order to fund its budget. But with the news that the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design will be absorbed by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, the ethical status of this particular sale—this particularly large sale—has been thrown into limbo.

The Corcoran's position on deaccessioning is not unusual. For art museums, it's akin to the Prime Directive: Museums cannot and must not sell works to cover their operating costs. The practice of shaping a museum collection is held to the strictest standards by the Association of Art Museum Directors. "[D]eaccessioning—the art world term for selling pieces from a museum’s collection—has become a dirty word and the focus of increasingly intense attention," wrote Robin Pogrebin in a 2011 report on the dangers of deaccessioning for The New York Times. Museums that sell works for any reason invite scrutiny, and for good reason.

According to what little detail is known about the takeover of the Corcoran, the National Gallery of Art will assume control over the Corcoran's art collection, whereas George Washington will absorb the Corcoran college, its Flagg Building and Georgetown campus, and its debts and assets. So who gets the approximately $40 million purse—a frozen fund, one that must be used for the further acquisition of works for a Corcoran Gallery of Art that soon will not exist?

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