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Gary Younge


Detail from Porte de Cette by van Rysselberghe, which is being sold by Moma. Photograph: Christie
US museums to sell off art treasures

America's art museums are poised to put up for auction huge amounts of artwork by some of the world's most revered painters next week, prompting accusations from critics that they are neglecting their role as cultural custodians in search of short-term financial gains.

Paintings by Picasso, Chagall and Modigliani will be sold by a variety of prestigious institutions, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (Moma), the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Museum directors say they are selling works that have been gathering dust for years in order to replenish their stocks.

"It's only healthy," John Elderfield, the chief curator of painting and sculpture at Moma, told the New York Times. Moma hopes to sell 13 works, including works by Picasso, Henry Moore, and Théo van Rysselberghe's picture of a French Mediterranean harbour, at Christie's next month.

"When the collection was initially developed, Conger Goodyear, the museum's first president, said it would have the same permanence as a river - we know what direction it is going in, but it has to be fluid. That's how we operate. "The van Rysselberghe is very good," he said, by way of example. "But that early part of our collection we don't wish to develop."

With 43 works up for sale at Sotheby's the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is selling more than most and hopes to earn between $10m (£5.6m) and $15m. "We've taken a pretty aggressive look at the collection, something we don't do that often," said Nancy Thomas, the museum's deputy director. "It's more about the collection and the opportunity to improve it than it is about the market."

Modigliani's portrait of Spanish landscape painter Manuel Humbert is among the most valuable and, says the museum's chief curator of modern art, Stephanie Barron, the most difficult to part with. The fact that the museum has two other Modigliani portraits, she says, softened the blow. "It seemed like a luxury to have all three," she told the New York Times.

But other curators believe the move is being driven by money-minded trustees with insufficient sensitivity to the durability of artistic tastes in the long term.

"History will make a fool of these museums," said Robert Rosenblum, an art historian and a curator at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. "It always happens. Often the things that are sold are based on inherited prejudices that will be overturned in the future."

The latest move comes on the back of a huge dispute over New York Public Library's decision to sell Asher B Durand's Kindred Spirits to a Wal-Mart heiress last May. Ms Durand's painting, a classic of the Hudson River school, is believed to have fetched around $35m. The library faced stern criticism for selling the piece but argued that it had to in order to bolster its flagging endowment.

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