The Jewish Museum auction: Critics and fundraisers each try to explain their position

Over the weekend, collectors and experts from around the world flocked to the Howard Hughes Center at Union Station in order to have their hands on two pieces of treasure. The rarest of the pieces is the artwork of Modigliani, and some are going for as much as $40 million. In total, they brought in $13 million, including the auctioneer’s fee, to the Jewish Museum.

But besides being a big step in allowing the Jewish Museum to rebuild, it’s also a great example of how one organization can “spend no dollars and will have money to spend.” Bidding on the two pieces has been constant, with lots of people expressing interest. The auction will begin in October and sales, if successful, will pay for what’s left of the endowment.

The two pieces were donated to the museum by Esther Mercier, the widow of an assistant director at the institution. Mercier arrived in Washington, DC from France at the age of 13 in 1909, and lived here until her death in 2015. She’s certainly made her presence felt here. She was a leader of Americans of Jewish Descent, Inc., (AID), which led the historic legal challenge to desegregate local schools in the 1960s. She was given a new life with The Henry Ford Foundation and became the head of the Union League Club and the Charles James Rouse Foundation. She also co-chaired the fundraising campaign to establish The Henry Ford Museum.

The decision to auction off the pieces came after all the Jewish Museum board members agreed that it was in the best interest of the museum to sell the lots for the best price. Yet, there was a moment of hesitation that has left collectors and museum supporters feeling uneasy. One board member was concerned that a museum that relies so heavily on funds from the sale and fundraising would have trouble relying on those monies in the future.

It’s this sense of vulnerability that likely accounts for the negative headlines the auction has earned and the “Wish It Hadn’t” online petitions that have been created to register misgivings with the outcome. The ironic part is that the museum is allowing donors to give via bitcoin so all the online donors don’t have to change their financial ways in order to have their donations counted. That’s the good side of all this tension — others are helping the museum succeed.

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