Museum Deaccessioning vs. The Thriving Online Art Market

The stark contrast between the buzzing art market in 2021 and the grappling museum industry could not be more pronounced. Our guest writer, Chloe Aboud, comments on how museum deaccessioning could help the museum sector to survive the pandemic.

Image Credits: By Sandro Botticelli, Public Domain

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Chloe Aboud

January saw the New Year begin with the ultimate bang as the art world welcomed what was deemed to be the sale of 2021. Despite the economic strain the pandemic has had across many industries, the record breaking sale took place during Sotheby’s New York Old Masters Week. 

The work was a Sandro Botticelli portrait, entitled A Young Man holding a Roundel, dated c. 1480 – it sold for a colossal $92.2 million with all offers made either via phone or online – exceeding the artist’s previous auction record from 2013 when The Rockefeller Madonna achieved $10.4 million during a Christie’s auction in New York. 

With a sudden and essential move to a more online focused economy, the art market has only thrived. The absence of a hustling auction room has not hindered the trajectory of the online marketplace in the slightest, as collectors have willingly adapted to the times.

The art world can perhaps be crowned the most traditional industry in terms of its dependence on physicality – referring to the overarching reliance on art fairs, gallery exhibitions, auctions and social networking events. Although, according to a Hiscox report on the online art trade, the past year has seen nothing but an explosion in the popularity of the online art scene, with an over 524% increase in global sales from 2019 to 2020. 

Interestingly, the majority of the online platforms which took part in the Hiscox report believe that while the COVID-19 crisis has had a negative effect on the physical and traditional characteristics of the art world, it has had a positive impact on the popularity of online sales. So far, 2020 has proved to be a pivotal turning point in the transition to a more online-centric art world. 

As the generation rolls over, millennials have become avid art market participants. The transfer of the art world to a more online-focused sector is apparent. This week alone saw the sale of an NFT (non-fungible token) artwork, by the artist Beeple, achieve an outstanding $6.6 million at a Christie’s auction. 

As it was the first, entirely digital work to ever be offered at auction, Everydays – The First 5000 Days (2021), initially began its debut with an opening bid of $100. The work can be described as pixelated, comprising 5,000 images created daily since 1 May 2007. Known as crypto-art or crypto-collectables, they are taking the traditional nature of the art world by storm, with over $120 million worth of crypto-art sold over the past 12 months. 

As Christie’s has become the first major auction house to sell an entirely digital piece of art, it is safe to speculate that other notable auction houses will soon follow suit. Coupled with celebrity investors Elon Musk and Chamath Palihapitiya, who are known to back purely digital art forms, and the sale of Beeple’s work this week, I think it’s safe to affirm that we will be seeing more of this form of trading and investment in the future. 

In stark contrast to the booming online art market, the public sector has been struggling unequivocally. Last April, we were greeted by an announcement from the AAMD (The Association of Art Museum Directors) which stated that as a result of the financial strain that the Covid-19 pandemic was having on the museum sector, there would be a retraction of any sanctions that are normally enforced when a museum sells an artwork to meet operational costs. This is an entirely different can of worms in itself, as rules and regulations associated with artwork disposal from museum collections vary greatly, depending on the location of the museum and the jurisdiction that it is governed by. 

Some may be shocked at the idea of a museum (by virtue of nature) selling items from its collection with the sole purpose of transforming cultural heritage into a financial asset, but it is actually not an uncommon practice. I will spare you the six months of gruelling thesis research on the ethical implications and cultural influences surrounding museum deaccessioning and summarise 15,000 words with the following statement; Deaccessioning is highly controversial, but some deem it to be an integral component of good collection management, while others regard it as a breach of museum values. Regardless of the reasons a museum may have to sell an artwork, deaccessioning has been making headlines more and more over the past few months. 

The Brooklyn Museum was brought to our attention recently when it sold twelve works, with the intention of using the proceeds to cater for conservation, logistics and a portion of staff salaries. Works sold by some of the most notable names in art history, including Gustav Courbet, Henri Matisse, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Joan Miro, resulted in $6.6 million for the museum. An article from Artnet News reported that the museum intended to use the newly gained finances to “stabilise collection care efforts in times of economic downturn”. 

As a counter-action to deaccessioning being used to support any kind of operational costs, just last week we saw The Whitney Museum of American Art lay off fifteen further staff members as the director Adam D. Weinberg stated the decision was spurred as revenue from ticket sales had fallen by over 80%, adding to the previous 76 members of laid-off staff from the previous April. I will leave it in your good conscience to decide what you deem to be the correct decision for museums to undertake in times of financial strain. 

To be entirely honest, the museum industry has found itself caught between a rock and a hard place, in terms of staying afloat and planning for the future – with many believing it will be well into 2025 by the time the tourism industry picks back up and museum visits soar once more. 

The stark contrast between the buzzing art market and the grappling museum industry could not be more pronounced. I think I can conclude by declaring that the juxtaposition of museums struggling to make ends meet, versus the bustling online market, can only be described as tragically poetic.


1. Hiscox Online Art Report 2020

2. “AAMD Board of Trustees Approves Resolution to Provide Additional Financial Flexibility to Art Museums During Pandemic Crisis”

About the Author

Chloe Aboud

Chloe Aboud is a former Taekwondo athlete, who represented Ireland at numerous European and World Championships. Her elite training coincided with her Art Historical and French studies at Trinity College Dublin. Graduating in 2019 and armed with a BA, Chloe decided to embark on a journey that surprised many of her peers. Retiring from Taekwondo at the age of 23, she founded the online platform Talking Art History – with the mantra “Art history is always in the making!”. A recent MA graduate of Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Chloe has immersed herself in the vivacious art world, where she records her experiences and research through her platform Talking Art History.

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