Historic painting of African American sold as Philly history museum raises funds

"Yarrow Mamout" is believed to be the earliest known portrait of a practicing American Muslim.
"Yarrow Mamout" is believed to be the earliest known portrait of a practicing American Muslim. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Posted: October 21, 2011

One of the earliest formal portraits of an African American - a well-known oil painting of a kufi-wearing free black man painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1819 - has been sold by the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The striking portrait of Yarrow Mamout, an elderly Muslim and former slave living in Washington, is the most recent in a string of art and artifact sales made by the history museum, largely to finance its $5.9 million building renovation project.

Timothy Rub, Art Museum director, declined to discuss the painting's price, but other sources speculated that it would be at least $1.5 million.

Art Museum officials said eight paintings (including two Peale portraits) and a colonial side chair would be sold to fund the acquisition.

Yarrow Mamout is such "a rare and important painting" - the earliest known portrait of a practicing American Muslim - that the decision was made "to give up some works from our collection" to acquire it, Rub said. It is now on view at the museum.

Such sales of artworks from a collection fall within the ethical guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which approve of sales only when proceeds are used to acquire other art to enhance or focus museum holdings.

Mayor Nutter hailed the painting as a depiction of "a man who triumphed over enormous challenges and commanded the respect and admiration of all who knew him." He also said that "it is a great thing that such an extraordinary painting will remain here."

The Atwater Kent, mandated by the city charter to be Philadelphia's official history museum, has been criticized for using proceeds of sales from its collection to fund renovations. Viki Sand, former chief executive, instituted the program of sales with the approval of the board of directors several years ago.

In February 2010, after the auction sale of a distinctive still life by Raphaelle Peale (son of Charles Willson Peale) to a collector for $700,000, Sand told The Inquirer that her institution was "not an art museum."

That painting, along with all of the others in the recent series of sales, was acquired from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which provisionally transferred its holdings of 10,000 artifacts and artworks to the Atwater Kent in 2001. The museum obtained clear title to the society's collection in 2009, with the agreement that proceeds of sales be split evenly between the two institutions.

Kim Sajet, president of the society, said her institution requested the split because the artworks had been cared for by the society for "a hundred-plus" years.

The society, she said, was aware that Yarrow Mamout was to be sold (deaccessioned, in museum parlance) and told Atwater Kent officials it should stay in Philadelphia.

"We did have many conversations with them about how they choose items to be deaccessioned," Sajet said. "They give us a list of what they think they'd like to sell, but we can't stop it."

Sales of items once owned by the society began after the June 2009 agreement, and also after the Atwater Kent bid out a $4.7 million construction contract in August 2009. Christie's has auctioned off $1.9 million worth of former historical society objects since December 2009.

Page Talbot, a longtime member of the society's board, said its collection was not transferred to the Atwater Kent with the idea that "they could sell and we could pocket the proceeds."

"Do I agree with every decision they have made? No," she said. "Do we feel we should have had more ability to comment? Yes. Has there been transparency [in the transactions]? No."

Nutter, however, praised using funds to cover expenses for the Atwater Kent and the society, calling the sale "a win" for both.

 Sand, before retiring in 2010, had argued that the Atwater Kent was under no obligation to conform to the ethical code of the Association of Art Museum Directors. In the Yarrow Mamout sale, the Art Museum is rigorously adhering to that code and also is announcing those of its works approved for sale - the first time in memory it has opted for such openness.

Sand told The Inquirer in 2010 that use of proceeds to fund renovation of the city-owned 1826 Atwater Kent building on South Seventh Street complied with the ethical codes of the American Association of Museums and the American Association for State and Local History. Those looser standards allow sales if proceeds are used for "direct care" and "preservation" of collections.

Charles Croce, who became head of the Atwater Kent at the beginning of 2011, said its board had approved all items for deaccessioning  after curatorial review and before he joined the museum, which has been closed since January 2009 for renovation. In a letter to The Inquirer, Croce said total sales would fund $3.1 million in renovation.

Yarrow Mamout was offered privately to Philadelphia institutions in early 2010, Croce said, but none offered to buy. So it was placed with Christie's in New York, and two Washington institutions privately considered acquisition.

Peale was 78 when he painted the portrait during a trip to Washington in 1819 and then hung the work in his famous museum in Philadelphia. When the museum collection was liquidated in 1854, Charles S. Ogden, a prominent Philadelphia Quaker and businessman, bought Yarrow Mamout, along with Peale's 1772 portrait of George Washington, believed to be the first of the future general and president. In 1892, he gave both to the historical society, where they remained until the society transferred almost all of its 10,000 artifacts and artworks to the Atwater Kent in 2001, refocusing itself as a library.

 "You could argue that [Yarrow Mamout] has no Philadelphia relevance," Croce said, referring to part of the sale justification. "I felt differently. I felt it's a major artist with a Philadelphia [connection] .. . . I felt that, could we look at keeping this work in Philadelphia - and that is what we've tried to do."

Croce said the sale accorded with Atwater Kent's policy and the funds would be used only to pay for work involving collections care. But he acknowledged that proceeds would be used specifically to pay off most of a $1.4 million bank loan. He also said this would be the last artwork sold to defray renovation costs.

Terry Davis, executive director of the American Association for State and Local History, said that "when you get into paying off loans, it's difficult to say that this dollar went to collections and this did not." Loans, she said, "are a gray area."

Derick Dreher, head of the Rosenbach Museum and Library, has been critical of the use of sale proceeds for building work, arguing that the temptation to sell to cover operating and other costs quickly becomes irresistible.

"It's so easy to say, just this once and this is the last time," he said, speaking generally. "It is so easy to monetize art, there is a great temptation to do it again."

The Art Museum's list of works that it will sell in order to acquire Yarrow Mamout is: Portrait of a Lady, c. 1915, William Merritt Chase; Mrs. John Bayard (Margaret Hodge), 1780, Charles Willson Peale; Col. John B. Bayard, 1781, Charles Willson Peale; Head of a Girl in a Hat With a Black Rosette (no date), Mary Stevenson Cassatt; Italy, c. 1872-74, George Inness; Evening Landscape, c. 1868, Inness; Still Life With Fruit, c. 1850-70, Severin Roesen; and a side chair, c. 1755-60, artist/maker unknown, carved by Nicholas Bernard, Philadelphia.

With the exception of the Peale portraits, all will be sold at public auction. Museum officials said they were seeking to place the Peales with a public institution.

The Atwater Kent has sold, but not publicly announced the sale of, other works besides Yarrow Mamout, which Croce said have no Philadelphia relationship - an argument also made to justify sale of works by the Peale family. Proceeds will be used for collection conservation at the museum's East Falls storage facility.


Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

|
|
|
|
|