Although there are a multitude of reasons a museum may wish to reduce its collection, it often boils down to a perceived lack. It may be lack on the part of the museum (lack of storage space, lack of money), on the part of the object (lack of quality), or on the part of the curator (lack of fore-thought.) The decision to deaccession an item is never an easy one nor is the process usually simple.
There are two main ways for a museum to deaccession an item. The first is to gift the item to another institution. The most spectacular recent example of this was the Brooklyn Museum’s decision to give their entire costume collection, over 23,000 items, to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Similarly, when LACMA decided to prune its own costume collection, it gifted items to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, the Autry National Center of the American West, and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
The remaining unwanted items from LACMA’s costume collection were sold at auction, specifically Bonhams and Butterfields Sunset Estate Auctions in Los Angeles. While selling collection items is generally frowned upon, it is a relatively common practice, and both the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) have published guidelines concerning the proper and improper deaccessioning of museum collection materials (LACMA’s sale was handled properly). The May 17th Estate Auction at Bonhams included not only items from LACMA, but also items from the Laguna Art Museum, the Palm Springs Art Museum, and the Museum of Art and Design in New York. The last of these had three lots for sale with a combined low estimate of $150 and a combined hammer price of less than $100. All three lots had previously been offered in Bonhams’ March 1st Estate Auction but had failed to sell.
Which brings up an important point: deaccessioning is often about money, but it is not always about large sums of money. While LACMA has earned over $7,000 trimming its costume collection, over 100 items have been sold. Many lots went for less than their low estimate, with some only selling after the opening bid was lowered considerably.
It is important to mention that even those museums that do not deaccession, such as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, can expect to lose a certain percentage of their collection to shrinkage.