Rosenbach Museum announces plans to part with 13 paintings

Posted: January 20, 2011

The Rosenbach Museum and Library has decided to dispose of 13 paintings by the British painter Walter Greaves, a friend of James McNeill Whistler's, according to Derick Dreher, the museum's director.

The Rosenbach will sell 12 through Christie's auction house in New York starting next month, and is in talks to place the remaining painting, a portrait of Whistler, with a local museum.

Money from the sales will go into the Rosenbach's acquisitions fund, Dreher said.

The announcement of the sales - termed "deaccessioning" by collecting institutions - is the second from a Philadelphia museum this year. Two weeks ago, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts announced it had sold five paintings, raising $5 million, and planned to sell five more.

That announcement, including the names of the paintings and the dealers with whom they were placed, was a positive step toward shedding light on usually obscure transactions, said Janet Landay, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors. The association's ethical guidelines allow institutional selling only if proceeds are used for acquisitions; the academy's funds are restricted to buying additional art.

The Rosenbach is not a member of the association but followed its stringent guidelines anyway, Dreher said. "I think it's important, to maintain public trust, to be transparent," he said Wednesday, calling the deaccessioning justifiable and a "smart decision."

The Rosenbach board made the decision in October. Dreher said it would have been difficult to provide information earlier in the process.

"There are concerns about confidentiality during negotiations that would make it hard to issue a news release before the fact," he said. "The timing does confront people with a done deal."

Nevertheless, he pointed out, the paintings have been consigned but not sold. Similarly, five paintings had been consigned to dealers by the Pennsylvania Academy but not sold when it announced the deaccessioning. The Philadelphia Museum of Art was offered one but declined. Negotiations are under way to place one painting with another area museum.

The Greaves works were acquired in 1911 by Philip H. Rosenbach, an art dealer who founded the museum with his brother, A.S.W. Rosenbach, Dreher said. He then tried to sell them over 30 years.

"He ended up buying high . . . and not being able to sell at all," Dreher said. "It left him sitting on a worthless pile of paintings."

Greaves (1846-1930) met Whistler around 1863 and introduced him to river life in London. Whistler enjoyed the company of Greaves and his older brother and took them on as studio assistants, an arrangement that lasted two decades.

As a printmaker and painter, Greaves achieved considerable celebrity, often doing portraits of his mentor. His career spiraled downward, however, when Philadelphia painter and Whistler biographer Joseph Pennell derided his work as nothing more than Whistler copies. Greaves died in poverty.

That said, his paintings are in the collections of some of the world's great museums, including the Tate Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and a few of his Whistler portraits have sold at auction for more than $100,000 in recent years.

Dreher said that the paintings had never been exhibited, needed conservation, and did not mesh with the Rosenbach's collection, and that the decision to divest had come after extensive discussion, review, and deliberation.

"The board and the staff came to the conclusion that the works didn't belong in this collection," he said. "We don't feel badly about making the decision."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or

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