By RANDY KENNEDY, The New York Times
The first in a series of sales of antiquities from the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo made more than $18 million yesterday at Sotheby’s, providing a substantial boost to the museum’s endowment but saddening a group of patrons who have protested the decision to sell.
The star of the auction, which included more than 20 of the museum’s Chinese treasures, was an intricately decorated bronze wine vessel from the Shang dynasty that went for $8.1 million. A dealer bid for the object on behalf of the Compton Verney museum, a private gallery northwest of London that was opened three years ago by the British philanthropist Sir Peter Moores.
“The opportunity from our point of view and from Sir Peter’s point of view is that something like this is just not going to come around again,” said the London dealer Roger D. Keverne, a trustee of the museum, who competed for several tense minutes against another determined bidder. Sotheby’s had estimated that the work would sell for $2 million to $3 million.
The director and board of trustees of the Albright-Knox have said that they struggled over the decision to sell the antiquities, along with more than 100 other works of Indian, African, South American and ancient Roman art. But for a museum whose mission has mostly focused on Modern and contemporary art, they said, keeping the antiquities was a luxury it could no longer afford.
The museum plans to use the money to expand the $58 million endowment that it uses for buying new work, at a time when the competition for contemporary art is fiercer than ever.
Since the museum’s board decided to sell last fall, the move has drawn fierce criticism from a dedicated group of Buffalo residents and deeply divided the museum’s supporters.
Over the last few years several high-profile sales have brought the issue of museum deaccessioning to the fore, raising questions about whether museums have become too eager to jettison art to capitalize on a heady market. Those questions are particularly sensitive for smaller, often financially struggling museums like the Albright, where the loss of any work, much less acknowledged masterpieces, can loom large.
Last week, at a meeting forced by the opponents, the museum’s members voted 1,224 to 428 in favor of the sales. A last-minute lawsuit filed by the opponents, the Buffalo Art Keepers, to stop the auctions was dismissed last week by a New York State Supreme Court judge. She ruled that the group had failed to make a compelling case that the museum was deviating from its mission, among other claims.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Dennis, who has led the opposition, said yesterday that the museum had made a mistake it would regret in years to come. “We grieve that this museum has embarked on a path that is leading to it cutting off its link to the past,” he said. “We feel that this is part of the patrimony of our city.”
Sir Peter, whose family made its fortune in gambling and department stores, has been aggressively buying Chinese bronzes over the last several years for his museum, now considered to have the best collection of such pieces in England outside the British Museum. Compton Verney, which Sir Peter has described as an accessible museum designed for “ordinary people,” also has concentrations in medieval German work, British folk art and portraits and Neapolitan painting, and has commissioned contemporary works.
Mr. Keverne, the dealer, also went paddle to paddle with another bidder over an extremely rare limestone chimera but dropped out before the piece sold for $5.4 million. The auction house had estimated that it would sell for $1.5 million to $2.5 million. (Final sale prices include Sotheby’s commission: 20 percent of the first $200,000 of the hammer price and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)
After the sale, Mr. Keverne said the wine vessel, dating from the 13th to the 11th century B.C., was the one piece that Compton Verney had determined to get at almost any cost.
“We would like to have bought it cheaper, of course,” he said. “But we’re not surprised by the price. It’s a very rare piece. Sir Peter realized its importance, and he just put down his head and went for it.”