Fit, Not Finances, Behind Carnegie Museum Art Sale

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The Carnegie Museum of Art plans to auction more than 185 items from its expansive decorative arts collection this month -- because the items no longer fit its mission, officials said, and not to raise money for operating costs.

The sales could raise as much as an estimated $360,000, which would be spent on acquiring better items for the collection, Chief Curator Louise Lippincott said Friday.

"All of the funds will be used for new works of art for display in the museum, and there's absolutely no exception to that rule," Lippincott said. "This is a necessary activity that will make our collection much better."

The sales will occur as renowned museums are coming under fire for considering the sale of artwork to pay operating costs or other expenses. Many art museums have suffered deep investment losses in recent months with the falling stock market and the recession.

The endowment for the Carnegie Institute -- which is the art museum, Natural History Museum, Science Center and The Warhol -- dropped to $197 million in December 2008 from a high of $300 million a year earlier, spokeswoman Ellen James said. The Carnegie Institute, which reported $60 million in annual expenses and a $17 million surplus in its latest audited financial statement for 2007, is not in financial trouble, she said.

The institute's overall finances and the sale of artwork, a process known as deaccession, are unrelated, James said.

Museum organizations and curators contacted by the Tribune- Review did not object to the auctions.

"Deaccession has nothing to do with the endowment, and the endowment has nothing to do with deaccession," James said. "We are a respected institution, and we would never want to compromise our practices or our reputation."

Items the museum will sell include a chandelier valued at as much as $30,000 and a Danish silver sugar sifter that could go for as little as $50.

Forty-one items are from the collection of philanthropist Ailsa Mellon Bruce, the only daughter of the late banker Andrew W. Mellon, a renowned art collector who founded the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Bruce died in 1969.

Most of the Carnegie items are scheduled for an auction in Portsmouth, N.H., on May 17, and two other lots are for sale at Christie's auction house in New York on May 22. Four items were placed for auction in March at Sotheby's in New York, but only one sold: a lamp, for $4,375.

The Carnegie's decorative arts collection has about 7,000 items, including 3,000 from the Bruce collection, and curators began reviewing the items in 2006, Lippincott said. The museum had just hired a curator for the collection, and it was preparing for an exhibit that opens in November. …