Government Selling Art : A Subject with Much Discourse

March 21, 2015

If you followed the developments of the huge financial and economic crisis in Greece since its beginning, you probably know about speculations that some of the thousands of beautiful Aegean islands might be sold to foreign individuals or private companies. The Greek government simply ran out of money and they desperately needed revenue of any kind. The deficit that accompanied the debt crisis was too big for the fragile Greek economy. In a desperate attempt to fill the financial gap in the country’s budget, selling the islands was discussed as one option. These discussions largely provoked an outrage among Greek citizens, because the islands are the Greek state’s sovereign possession, owned and run by the state. As expected, no big island was sold away. That would really be a strange precedent. However, the Greek government tried to find other public assets which sales could improve the financial situation. Among these public assets there were also highly valued pieces of art. Selling a part of a country’s territory and selling the government-owned art. Of course, the government-owned art is also a part of the national identity and “national pride”; is it justifiable to sell this art so that it ends up in some collection of an anonymous art-lover? On the other hand, what would the consequences of the government-owned art mass sale for the art market be? It would probably shake the stability of the market itself. These questions provoked big debates, not in Greece, but in two big European nations – Germany and France, where the sale of government-owned art and plans for selling it provoked quite a vigorous reaction.

How Would these Sales Affect the Art Market?

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Sale of Government-Owned Art in Germany

The economic situation in Greece cannot be compared with the German one at all. However, the financial crisis from 2008 and 2009 didn’t spare German banks or state-run institutions and organizations. There was one quite spectacular art sale in November 2014 at Christie’s auction of post-war and contemporary art in New York. Two famous Andy Warhol’s masterpieces were sold. His well-known Triple Elvis was sold for $ 81,925,000, making it an absolute winner of 2014 in terms of auction selling prices. The full-figure triple portrait of The King is the rarest out of a series of paintings Warhol produced for his groundbreaking 1963 Los Angeles exhibition. The same evening, another Warhol’s masterpiece, Four Marlons, from 1963, executed on raw and unprimed linen and depicting the iconic image of Marlon Brando from the 1953 cult classic movie The Wild One was sold for $ 69,605,000. Quite a spectacular night at Christie’s, but what does it have to do with German government-owned art? Both of the Warhol’s large portraits had been acquired by a German casino house in the 1970s. This casino, from North Rhine-Westphalia state, is a state-owned gaming facility. This sale made national arts advocates worried that a dangerous precedent has been set for unloading publicly owned art. The German Culture Council expressed concerns that other towns and states in Germany facing difficulties could follow suit. Since the prices at the market are quite high, many other public institutions and government-owned organizations might decide to follow the steps of the casino from Aachen.

High Priced Sales too Attractive?

Andy Warhol - Mona Lisa, 1979

Selling the Government-Owned Art and Tax-Payers Money

When the financial crisis hit the banking sector in all European countries, including Germany, many banks had to be bailed out for billions of euros. This money, given by government, was actually the tax-payers’ money. In Germany, one of these banks was WestLB, which was bailed out for billions of euros by the German tax payers. The Portigon Company, legal successor of the WestLB, faces the same difficulties as the rescued bank had before the bail-out. It is estimated that the bank (via Portigon Company) should be closed before 2016, and that all the assets should be sold out. These assets happen to include an amazing collection, with the works by artists such as Richter, Boys and Polke. Portigon announced that their entire collection will be sold; even though it is indirectly owned by the state. The company’s CEO Franzmeyer simply said: “We have to sell the art”. He added that if someone wants to keep a piece from the collection, he or she has to pay the market price for it. The museums, culture and experts reacted quite furiously. Firstly, the sale would be a big cultural loss for North Rhine-Westphalia and Germany, and even the political and cultural reputation would be in danger. The Minister of Culture, Monika Grütters, threatened that the Ministry would intervene if necessary in order to stop this massive sale. However, it is not just about cultural identity and political reputation – the question is what will happen with these pieces if they are sold?  The maintenance of the collection is partially paid by the German citizens. Will they have any benefits from selling this art collection at the art market?

Art Experts are Furious About these Actions

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Andy Warhol - Four Marlons

The Case of Government-Owned Art in France

In December, the French Minister of Economy initiated a bill that included plans to sell off state-owned assets worth up to € 10 billion. A recent parliamentary report claimed that hundreds of thousands of artworks - many of which have never been displayed - are kept in storages all over France. The head of Sotheby's France encouraged French officials to follow the US model, where museums like MoMA often sell unused parts of their permanent collections. The debate was fueled with speculations on national television regarding the possibility for the Mona Lisa (whose worth is estimated at around € 1.9 billion) to be sold, in order to help offset the country's huge deficit. However, the recent reports indicate that France will not sell its art to pay the debt, since the reputation of the museums is simply too precious.

Mona Lisa Going on Sale?

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Andy Warhol - Triple Elvis

The Debate over Selling the Government-Owned Art

The question of selling the government-owned art is a hot topic. All parts interested in this topic probably have their own opinion about it. The first big question is dealing with the legitimacy of such sales. Should the tax-payers be responsible for the business failures of banks and companies that have big art collections, especially if they are owned or co-financed by the state? For example, some local public museum in Germany will buy a piece from WestLB collection, which means that the tax-payers will pay again for the maintenance of these works. Also, many pieces of art represent a cultural treasure of a country. Is it fair that these artworks end up in private collections of complete strangers? The second big question that could be posed is what is going to happen with the art market if it is swamped by government-owned art? It would certainly affect the private collectors as well, and the big question is: would the prices at market fall or would they rise? It seems that the issue of selling the government-owned art is going to be a hot topic in the coming period.

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Featured Image: Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (courtesy of

All Images used for illustrative purposes.