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Acquiring a Work of Art: Loch Long

It’s difficult to acquire a work of art for the IMA that is being offered for sale in an auction, because any addition to the museum’s collection has to be reviewed by a committee and the Board of Directors whose meetings may not coincide with the scheduled auction.  When Loch Long by Robert Duncanson came up for auction in 1997, I knew this would make a wonderful addition to the IMA African American collection. But I had to find a way to bid on the painting but not purchase the work without prior approval from the committee and the Board.  Before I could even consider proceeding, the director’s approval was required. This was not difficult, because building the African American collection was a museum priority and Duncanson was a very important artist and the only African American artist associated with the Hudson River School of landscape painters.  No museum collection of African American art would be complete without one of his landscapes.

Loch Long by Robert Duncanson

Loch Long by Robert Duncanson

The next step was to research the artist and the painting to make sure the landscape represented Duncanson’s best work. The artist traveled to Scotland many times bringing back numerous sketches that he turned into landscape paintings.  Some of these paintings are considered his most important pieces.  Research showed that Loch Long certainly belonged in this category.  Since the painting was being offered at auction, we could not bring it into The IMA to be examined by our conservation department prior to its purchase.  Our conservation department recommended a conservator near the auction who sent us a condition report.  Although the painting would require cleaning along with some additional work, this was not considered a deterrent to its acquisition.

Having taken all the necessary steps to make sure the painting would make an important addition to the collection and its condition was not problematic, I still had to decide on the maximum amount we should bid and find someone who would step in and purchase the work if the committee or the Board turned it down.  Considering all the research a curator does before suggesting a work be acquired by the museum, it is very unlikely that it would be rejected, but it is still necessary to be prepared.  I contacted a local art collector who agreed to purchase the work if it did not obtain approval.  We decided on a maximum bid, but not before researching the artist’s auction records.  It was necessary to also establish where the painting fit into previous sale prices and how much the museum, and in this case the collector, could pay.  Most auction catalogs contain estimated sale prices for each piece in the sale, but these estimates are not always reliable. It is critical to understand the art market and the painting’s place in it before deciding on a maximum bid.  I also had to determine which art acquisition fund could support this purchase.  Some of these funds are designated for specific types of art and others are general funds that can be used for any purchase. It is possible that none of the funds would be accessible, if they were already designated for other purchases.  Funds were found to be available that could be used to purchase Loch Long in the Alliance of the Indianapolis Museum of Art Fund.

I placed the bid by telephone, which is the typical method of bidding if it is not possible to attend the auction.  The final bid was double the auction house’s high estimate, which was not surprising.  Collectors and museums were beginning to recognize the significance of African American art and prices were climbing. Duncanson’s Loch Long was not only an important landscape but also a very striking one.  The final bid was one bid under the maximum the museum and collector were willing to pay, so we were extremely fortunate to be the high bidder.  The purchase was unanimously approved by the committee and the Board, which, as expected, eliminated any obligation on the part of the collector. After undergoing conservation, Loch Long was placed on view in the American galleries with the Hudson River School paintings already on display.

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