Toledoans may soon have a rare chance to buy a piece of Roman or Egyptian history first brought to Toledo more than a century ago.
During a public sale last fall of more than 60 pieces of ancient artifacts from the Toledo Museum of Art’s collection, 145 additional pieces were offered by the museum that never made it to the auction block.
The second lot, which includes 18 early pieces acquired in 1906 by museum founder Edward Drummond Libbey during a trip to Egypt, was determined by Christie’s Auction House to not be of high enough value to be sold through public auction.
Subsequently, the museum will offer the antiquities for sale first to other museums before the public will have an opportunity, said TMA director Brian Kennedy.
The October sale was met with objections from the Egyptian and Cyprus governments, who said cultural artifacts should remain accessible to the public.
“We have taken this position … let’s offer them first to museums and see if they want them; then if they don’t, put them on the market,” Mr. Kennedy said. “[The Egyptian government] wanted them to have the preference to be offered to museums, so that’s what we are doing.”
The museum has contracted with private antiquities dealer Harlan J. Berk LTD., of Chicago, which is currently offering the pieces, including statues, vases, lamps, pitchers, and bowls from Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, and Italy, to the 244 members that make up the Association of Art Museum Directors.
The sale is expected to be expanded to the American Alliance of Museums, which includes a broader membership of science, history, and field museums and centers.
Mr. Kennedy said the museum’s “innovative approach” to the sale was made after follow-up discussions with Egyptian government officials.
More than 40 of the pieces have sold since the directors’ group was notified, said Aaron Berk, director of antiquities for Harlan Berk. He said working with the museum on the venture is an unusual process for the company that his father, Harlan Berk, founded in 1964.
A timetable to release the remaining items for sale to the members of the American Alliance of Museums and then to private individuals has not been set.
“As soon as we feel like the museums have been exhausted, we will open it up to the public,” Mr. Berk said.
The pieces are being sold through a buy and bid process, in which purchasers can offer to buy items at the listed price or can place bids below the listed price. Items that do not sell for the listed price will be sold to the highest listed offer accepted by Harlan Berk.
Neither Mr. Berk nor Mr. Kennedy would comment on the financial terms of the sale. The items posted in the catalog are posted for sale prices as low as $150 for a Roman lamp found at Porta Pinciana between 399 and 300 B.C., and as high as $9,850 for an Egyptian bronze cat, 664-332 B.C.
If all items sold at listed prices, total sales would peak at more than $283,500. That price tag compares to the almost $970,000 generated from the 66 higher-priced pieces during the online and live auctions at Christie’s in October. Money from both sales goes into the museum’s new acquisitions fund.
Deaccessioning is the act of permanently removing pieces from a museum through sales so that new pieces can be acquired.
The 213 pieces were chosen from the museum’s collection of more than 1,500 antiquities under a two-year process of review of its antiquities collection by an art committee, which determined that the pieces selected had not appeared in museum literature or been studied by scholars, were not up to collection standards, or were duplicates of other pieces in the collection.
The museum has defended its position to deaccession as one that is practiced by private U.S. institutions across the country as a way to responsibly manage and care for collections, and guided by policies of the directors’ group, the American Alliance of Museums, and the International Council of Museums. They stood by that right to go straight to a public sale this time as well, even though they chose a different route.
“We have decided in this instance, as an experiment, to offer these objects first to members of [Association of Art Museum Directors],” said Adam Levine, TMA’s associate director and associate curator of ancient art.
“Partly this has to do with the anticipated value, which precluded the works from major public auction, and partly it has to do with the nature of the objects themselves. The diverse works of art are well- suited to institutions that endeavor to have more comprehensive study collections or to museums without antiquities, but which may wish to start a collection.”
During the first sale in October, the Egyptian government assigned former Egyptian minister of antiquities and archaeologist Zahi Hawass to impose sanctions against the Toledo museum for its decision to sell antiquities from its country.
Mr. Hawass did not respond to requests for comment on the second sale.
Joan Connelly, a renowned art expert, nationally known archaeologist, winner of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award, and professor of classics and art history at New York University, also questioned the initial sale. She was unable to be reached for comment Tuesday.
Leonidas Pantelides, ambassador for Cyprus, had also shown concern in October, and had asked the Toledo museum to reconsider selling its artifacts to the public.
He called the new sale to museums an “important development,” and drafted a letter to Mr. Kennedy on Tuesday, recommending that the museum consider similar deaccessioning in the future.
“In return, both the embassy and the Hellenic American Community will laud the Toledo Museum of Art as a responsible ethical museum for engaging in rules-based deaccessioning and paving the way for responsible museum practice that can be hailed as truly pioneering,” Mr. Pantelides wrote.
Mr. Kennedy said the museum has been evaluating another collection for the possibility of deaccessioning, as is their practice, but would not elaborate.
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