Carnegie Museum of Art to auction 185 pieces


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Cleaning out closets is a tedious task that often falls to the bottom of a to-do list. That's also true for large institutions such as Carnegie Museum of Art.

Since 2006, museum staff, outside experts and members of a collections committee have found more than 185 pieces of furniture and decorative arts objects that the museum has no plans to exhibit.

On May 17, Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, N.H., will put up for sale all of those pieces, including Royal Worcester porcelain bird figures, coverlets, ornate clocks, antique silver and furniture, Tiffany objects and three glittering chandeliers. Proceeds, which could be as high as $360,000, will be used to buy new pieces for the decorative arts collection.

Louise Lippincott, chief curator at the museum of art and a member of the staff for 19 years, said this is the largest de-accessioning of decorative arts objects she can recall during her tenure. Many pieces, she said, would be excellent for furnishing a historic house or period rooms. A good example is Lot No. 128, a Louis XVI clock that's a 19th-century version of an 18th-century style.

"It's fine for home decoration but not for a museum," Ms. Lippincott said.

"De-accessioning" is a long, careful process, she said, adding that some of the items reflect the style of a particular era but are not rare, extraordinary or first class. The Royal Worcester porcelain birds, for example, are "collectibles, but they're not great," she said. And the Tiffany pieces are "mass-produced minor items."

"We have so many other, better examples on view."

The museum lacks a place to hang lot No. 144, a chandelier from the estate of Michigan heiress Anna Thompson Dodge. But even if it had a place, Ms. Lippincott said, the chandelier, made in the 1930s, is "so far from the period it's intending to represent," which is the French Regency between 1715 and 1723.

Included in the auction are 41 items from the collection of Ailsa Mellon Bruce, the only daughter of Pittsburgh banker Andrew W. Mellon, who also was a philanthropist, art collector and secretary of the U.S. Treasury. Mrs. Bruce died in 1969, and a year later the Carnegie acquired 3,000 items from her two New York apartments and a home in Syosset, Long Island.

The Bruce collection is a subset of the larger decorative arts holdings, which number 7,000 items. David Owsley of New York City was decorative arts curator at Carnegie Museum of Art when Mrs. Bruce's collection was acquired. Mrs. Bruce, he said, showed great discrimination, "particularly in English china and Continental porcelain, as well as French furniture of museum quality."

Nevertheless, "We've been de-accessioning from the Bruce collection since we first received it in 1970," said Ellen James, a museum spokeswoman.

Of the original 3,000 Bruce collection items, 710 remain. The collection included a dozen sets of china and only the best of those were kept, Ms. James said.

"Not only was Ailsa a collector, she was also a home decorator," Ms. James said.

Jason Busch, the Carnegie's current decorative arts curator, is overseeing a reinstallation of the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Galleries, slated to open in November. He was in Europe and unavailable for comment in this story.

The items from Mrs. Bruce's collection that are being sold on May 17 are "Park Avenue high style," Ms. Lippincott said. Many "would have graced the homes of well-to-do Pittsburghers a generation or two generations ago," said Henry Gailliot, a retired economic forecaster for Federated Investors who has chaired the museum's collections committee for the last two years.

"Why they were accessioned 30 or 40 years ago, I can't say," he added. "They are good-looking decorative objects that are not of museum quality. For the most part, they are reproductions. Some are quasi fakes. Some are genuine but in very bad condition."

The auction lots, he said, "take up enormous amounts of one of the museum's most precious commodities, which is storage space. A lot of this stuff wouldn't be accessioned today."

The museum recently renovated its 15,303 square feet of storage space to improve its efficiency, he said. During the economic downturn that began last year, Carnegie Institute's endowment dropped from $300 milllion to $187 million. But space, not finances, is the reason for this de-accessioning, museum officials said.

A thorough examination of the decorative arts collection "was just something that was long overdue. Jason is a very energetic person," Mr. Gailliot said.

The museum contacts donors or their lawyers or grandchildren before de-accessioning any object given to the museum. When new objects are acquired, the names of the deaccessioned items' donors are placed on items that are somewhat similar in style or spirit to what they gave originally.

"That way, the donor is still recognized," Mr. Gailliot said.


Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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