A decade ago the process of museum deaccessioning was cloaked in mystery and innuendo. Afraid that selling off old gifts would discourage new ones, museum people hemmed and hawed about the ethics of deaccessioning.
Now many museums which have been collecting for a hundred years have far more material than they can use. Aware that they must either stop collecting or start selling, more and more of them are looking at their storage rooms as financial assets and selling works of fine and decorative art publicly in the light of day.
Selling to pay heating and lighting bills or for deferred maintenance or for public programs is still not sanctioned by museum ethics, but selling to make other acquisitions or pay for conservation is an acceptable practice in the museum world.
That explains why museum consignments make up a third of Sotheby's Oct. 26 Americana sale coming up in New York. More than 700 objects from the Wallace Nutting collection have been consigned by the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., and more than 100 items come from the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. And Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg is selling more than 100 lots of American and English antiques.
Unlike some museums that have been selling under the guise of "an Eastern educational institution," these museums are advertising the fact that they are offering duplicates or items that do not fit their purposes.
"No sensible curator undertakes deaccessioning lightly," said William Hosley, curator of American Decorative Arts at the Wadsworth Atheneum. "Ethical ones do not sell off collections merely to endow their changing appetites."
Mr. Hosley admits that negotiating the competing interests and resources of the past and present is a real challenge. His deaccessioning of nearly half the 1,600 items in the famous Nutting collection provides an instructive case study of responsible selling.
Wallace Nutting, a legendary figure in the early years of collecting Americana, was the best-known American antiques expert in the 1920s. His purpose in collecting furniture and accessories was to preserve in the public domain the home economy of the preindustrial age.
When he started collecting, Nutting had already become a household name associated with the many cheap colored photographs of scenes and interiors he had been making and selling for years after stress
caused him to retire. In 1917 he began to manufacture a line of reproduction furniture and iron hardware, and he owned a chain of Colonial houses in Massachusetts and Connecticut that he urged the public to visit.
In 1921 he publicized his antique collecting in a book, "Furniture of the Pilgrim Century." Many readers sent him letters offering him similar items. Between 1921 and 1924 his collection had expanded so much that he came out with a revised edition of his book. Then negotiations for selling the collection began. J. P. Morgan bought it for close to a quarter of a million dollars and gave it to the Wadsworth Atheneum.
The Nutting collection of early Colonial furniture and food-processing accessories opened to the public in 1925. Three years later Nutting came out with what is probably his best-selling book on American antiques of all time, the two-volume "Furniture Treasury," with many of the plates noting, "property of the Wadsworth Atheneum." A third volume followed in 1933. In addition to his books, Nutting contributed many illustrated articles to the magazine Antiques, which began publication in 1922.
The collection was so well-publicized that collectors and antiquarians have been making a pilgrimage to Hartford to see it ever since. Every 10 to 15 years it has been reinstalled, the last time by Mr. Hosley in 1984. Now more than half the collection is on public view, more than has been seen since the 1920s. The rest has languished in the basement -- piles of iron utensils and furniture stacked in crammed quarters hard to access.
"Deaccessioning is a housekeeping measure," Mr. Hosley admits. "Why should museums hold on to stuff they don't show?" he asks. "We are selling duplicates and the second-string team; items respectable for a house museum or a private collection, but redundant for us."
There are chests, beds, chairs, tables, bed warmers, mortar and pestles, wooden plates and burl bowls, iron grills and griddles, dippers and strainers, S-hooks and fireplace cranes, bellows and irons, lanterns, fat lamps, hinges and door latches; as well as some pewter, stoneware and a stack of redware milk pans. "There hasn't been a sale of this character in 50 years," Mr. Hosley claims.
One of the nicest items is a small gateleg table with vase turnings, No. 949 in the "Furniture Treasury," which should bring around $20,000. "Why are we selling it? Because we have seven similar, four on display," Mr. Hosley says.