The War of Art by Eva Neuberg

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Museum collections have long tantalized would-be buyers and dealers of fine art. With most museums displaying a third or less of their collections at any given time — before it moved into its new building in 2004, the Museum of Modern Art was able to display only 10 percent of its magnificent collection — there’s a lot of beautiful and valuable art that’s not often seen by private collectors or the general public.

But deaccessioning, as the practice of selling off art by a museum is known, has long been controversial. The American Association of Museums prohibits the proceeds of such sales from being used for anything other than further acquisitions or direct care of collections, and the International Council of Museums’ standard is similar. Most prominent American museums are members of one or both groups, which means that it’s not ethical for member museums to sell off a Warhol or Mondrian to cover salaries or other operating expenses, no matter how acute the need.

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