Earlier this week, when The Inquirer first reported that the works might be sold, some scholars expressed concern over what they perceived as a dilution of Philadelphia's cultural heritage.
The seminary's vice president of assessment and information services, Cait Kokolus, said the seminary had attempted to place the works with a Philadelphia museum, but none was willing to purchase them.
Senior said his hope was that a museum elsewhere would acquire the works. But Kokolus acknowledged that they could end up in private hands.
The Eakins portraits to be sold are of the Right Rev. James F. Loughlin, Dr. Patrick Garvey, the Rev. James P. Turner, Archbishop James Frederick Wood, and James A. Flaherty.
Liz Beaman, Christie's American art specialist, said the firm will pursue private sales, which could increase the likelihood that the works would find homes in museum settings.
"We think we might experience great institutional interest in these paintings, and smaller museums often have trouble operating around an auction timeline, where you might have at most three months' notice," she said.
Christie's will also broker the sale of another Eakins painting, a portrait of Msgr. Hugh T. Henry that is on display at the seminary but owned by the American Catholic Historical Society. Christie's wouldn't discuss price estimates for the works. In 2009, the auction house raised $461,000 from the sale of two Eakins portraits for the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.
Beaman said some Eakins portraits had commanded up to $2 million at auction. "The portrait market can be a subjective one," she said. "The historical prominence of the subject, the attractiveness of the sitter, the elaborateness of the costume - all of those factors can play into a variation in price."
In addition, Sotheby's will handle the sale of another collection highlight, an Alice Neel portrait of Archbishop Jean Jadot. The work will be offered at auction on May 15 and is estimated to sell for $250,000 to $350,000.
A third auction house, Bonham's, is to broker the sale of Colin Campbell Cooper's painting Saint Peter's Cathedral.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia does not yet have a clear fund-raising goal for the seminary, but renovations - including the overhaul of an 1870 building that has been vacant for more than 35 years - are likely to carry a price tag in the tens of millions of dollars, Senior said.
The seminary doesn't have the capability to properly care for the paintings, Kokolus added. "They should be in a place where they can be preserved," she said.
The seminary will keep portraits of all of Philadelphia's archbishops, and a 19th-century painting, Christ Raising the Daughter of Jairus, by Frank Moss, along with a few other works.
The rest of its 200-piece art collection, though, may be destined for the auction block.
"We're still working out a plan for how to reduce the collection," Senior said. "Whether it would be a public sale or a private sale we don't know."