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The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has deaccessioned a rare portrait of the first US president, George Washington, which will be sold at auction to raise money for the museum’s acquisition fund. The painting, by famed American portraitist Gilbert Stuart, is estimated to sell for between $1.5m and $2.5m at a New York auction next month.
According to Christie’s, the portrait is among Stuart’s earliest of Washington after the president sat for him in the autumn of 1795. Those portraits are today known as the Vaughan series, named for the recipient of the painting long believed to be the original. Only 14 of the portraits are known to exist today, according to Christie’s. The Met has another example in addition to the painting being sold at Christie’s. This other version, known as the Gibbs-Channing-Avery portrait, is considered one of the earliest and best replicas, according to the Met’s website. Only four of the Vaughan portraits are in private hands, according to Christie’s.
“The Met annually deaccessions works of art, following comprehensive review with a focus on similar or duplicate objects,” a spokesperson for the museum said in a statement shared with The Art Newspaper. “The museum is fortunate to have a rich collection of paintings by Gilbert Stuart, including the first in the series of George Washington portraits known as the Vaughan group. The funds from this sale will enable the museum to further prioritise the acquisition of outstanding works of art.”
The painting up for sale at Christie’s was previously owned by the Philips family, English textile merchants who lived in the Manchester area but supported the US side during the American Revolution. The portrait passed through the family until 1923, when it was purchased by the London dealer Frank T. Sabin, before passing to the powerful Duveen Brothers, who then sold the painting to Richard De Wolfe Brixey, a New York businessman, for $18,000.
When Brixey died in 1943, he bequeathed the painting to the Met. According to a 1944 article in The New York Times, Brixey bequeathed a total of eight paintings to the museum with an appraised value of $37,850. Accounting for inflation, that would be about $652,914 today. Other works at the Met from the Brixey collection include Portrait of a Young Woman (around 1490-1500) by Lorenzo di Credi and Midshipman Augustus Brine (1782) by John Singleton Copley, both of which are on view at the museum’s Fifth Avenue location.
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The Washington portrait is the top lot of the Important Americana sale at Christie’s New York on 18 and 19 January. Stuart’s auction record was set in 2018 during one of multiple live auctions of Peggy and David Rockefeller’s vast collection when one of the Vaughan Washington portraits fetched $11.5m against an $800,000 to $1.2m estimate.
While deaccessioning can be a controversial move for museums, selling works within a collection to fund future acquisitions falls under guidelines set by the Associated of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). Last month, a painting by Balthus deaccessioned by the Art Institute of Chicago sold at Sotheby’s New York for nearly $14.7m with fees. The Met last year deaccessioned and consigned Pablo Picasso’s first Cubist sculpture, Tête de femme (Fernande), which fetched $48.4m with fees at Sotheby’s New York in May 2022.