The conclusions finally drawn from the current controversy concerning the Metropolitan's "deaccessioning" paintings from its collection will influence future museum policy in America. It is thus unfortunate that little emphasis has been placed on the most serious menace of such "deaccessioning" to the cultural heritage of the human race.

The worst catastrophe does not immediately hang over objects sold by a museum for an impressive sum. Although faith to donors may be violated; although the museum may not secure maximum prices; although its collection may be impoverished to the detriment of the community, the chances are that the objects, being regarded as valuable, will (at least until there is a major change in taste) be preserved. But if museum objects are dumped at a time when they are considered of minimal value, they may, since at that moment nobody cares, be lost forever to the world of art.

The only certainty concerning artistic taste is that it changes: today's position will be abandoned tomorrow. Since this situation is so irrefutably demonstrated by history, it is amazing to find supposedly sophisticated individuals who believe that taste has at last been solidified in their eyes and their erudition. They claim that, having conducted research according to their own lights, they have soared above their own times into universal infallibility. They see no reason why they should hesitate to restructure for the entire future of mankind the collections temporarily entrusted to them.

Defending his museum's policy in a letter to The New York Times last fall, Douglas Dillon, the president of the Metropolitan, stated that the precautions taken before an object is sold are scaled to the presumed sales price. Considerable care is taken if the assessment is over $25,000; some care if the work is "valued by the curator at $10,000 or over." Nothing is said of any checks on the dumping of objects judged to be worth less than $10,000.

This essay originally appeared as an Op-ed page article in The New York Times.


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