Deaccessioning Salem

The vast wealth accumulated by Salem entrepreneurs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created a cultural landscape that still characterizes the city to some extent, encompassing institutions that inherited this wealth in the form of both currency and treasures. When the former runs out, the latter are tapped, and priorities shift over time: such is the pattern of deaccessioning. The First Church of Salem sold 14 pieces of colonial silver nearly a decade ago, and built an addition with the profits. The Trustees of the Salem Athenaeum have considered the sale of their 1629 Massachusetts Bay Charter, sealed with the signature of King Charles I, from time to time, with the earnest approval of some and the deep disdain of others. Sometimes a deaccessioning will enhance Salem’s heritage rather than take it away: such was the case of the Richard Derby House, which was donated to the City by the Society of the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) in 1937 to serve as a cornerstone of the new Salem Maritime National Historic Site. When it comes to smaller treasures, I think more things have left Salem than remained, and apparently another prize is about to depart: this week the Salem Public Library announced that it had consigned a painting by Salem’s most notable modern artist, Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951), to Skinner Auctions for its January 23 auction of European and American Works of Art. The painting, entitled Figure in White, apparently depicts Benson’s older sister, Georgiana, and was completed about 1890: he retained it throughout his life, and after his death his children bequeathed it to the Library, for which Benson had served as a Trustee from 1912 until his death.

Benson Figure in White

Benson plaque Figure in White

Benson Photograph Phillips Library Collections

Figure in White (1890), by Frank Weston Benson, and frame plaque, Skinner Auctions; Benson c. 1907-1908, Benson Family Papers, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

I am very torn on this one: obviously this man demonstrated a life-long commitment to the Library and his heirs wanted to honor that commitment in both a personal and generous way. When you approach the sale from that perspective it looks rather cold and cavalier. On the other hand, I’ve never seen this painting: its value (it has an estimate of $350,000-$550,000) has necessitated its securement behind closed doors. The Trustees of the Library, the successors of Benson, have a duty to the public as well as to the institution, and there must a long list of wants and needs that could be funded by the proceeds from the sale: one project that has been mentioned is the restoration of the Victorian cast-iron garden fountain adjacent to the Library building. The painting is one bequest, the entire library complex (building and fountain) another: it was donated to the City by the family of Salem’s most eminent philanthropist, Captain John Bertram, in 1887. Should one be “sacrificed” for the other? I’m just glad that I didn’t have to make this decision!

Salem Public LIbrary 1910

Salem Heraldry Paintings Coles

Captain John Bertram’s House (and a bit of his fountain), built in 1855 and donated to the City of Salem by his heirs in 1887–now the Salem Public Library, Detroit Publishing Company, 1910; Let’s bring some Salem back! Beautiful heraldry paintings for the Vincent and Cogswell Families by Salem artist John Coles, c. 1794, from another upcoming Americana auction @ Christie’s.

20 responses to “Deaccessioning Salem

  • Donna Thorland

    The happiest outcome would be for the PEM or another North Shore museum to purchase and exhibit it.

  • Peg

    I think it’s a great idea. It will give them the money to restore things we can actually see and enjoy.

  • mystuart

    A critical issue today in so many places. A well-said piece. Thanks for doing it. There are no easy solutions, as you say.

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    Yes, a very difficult decision. Obviously, having this work of art isn’t of much use if it’s perpetually locked away where almost no one can enjoy it. On the other hand, it’s an important link to Salem and its history.

    It would be nice if the library, were it to sell the work, decided to devote at least a portion of the funds realized to obtaining and maintaining books and papers dedicated to Benson (if it doesn’t already have such a collection). Perhaps that would take a little of the sting out of having to part with such a treasure.

    • daseger

      That’s a very interesting suggestion. This particular library has a “Salem Room” and is quite strong on local history: I bet they already have some Benson materials that they could feature.

  • Helen sides


    Has anyone -City Solicitor I suppose – even weighed in on whether they can even sell a piece of public property? I am not sure the Board would have the right to decide to sell the building so why assume they can sell something within it?

  • Helen sides

    this link may be worth a read- the subject is the NY Public Library’s sale of its art treasures. Its an opinion piece of course, but its content is certainly an important asset to what seems to be a glaring lack of any public discourse on Salem Public Library’s intent to sell.

    Paul Viccica

  • downeastdilettante

    Just so wrong and sad on so many levels. When a wave of de-accessioning of art and curios swept our local library 25 years ago, a group of us staged a resistance. Fundraising took place. Now the collections given the library over the decades, much of it locally related art like this painting, are a source of real pride, and a draw for donors.

  • Peg

    I would be very horrified if it ended up in the Walmart Museum. I hope someone local buys it.

  • Peg

    Good news! Just received an email from Elizabeth Haff, the Specialist of American &European Works of Art at Skinner, Inc. She said the painting did not sell and they’re notifying the Salem News of their error in printing that it was sold.

  • Helen sides


    A story in Saturday’s edition, ‘“Figure in White’ sells for $300,000,” requires correction. The $300,000 auction bid for the Frank Benson painting was actually the reserve bid — the minimum acceptable — set by Skinner Auctioneers. The auction’s online system recorded it as a floor bid, but when no one bid higher, the painting remained unsold. It is now up to the owner, the Salem Public Library, to determine whether to seek a private buyer or try to auction it again.

    This is the correction the Salem News ran today – buried in the middle of the paper. Considering they ran the Banner Headline with crappy info ration you might think they would do something more significant to correct their error.

    What an embarrassment.


  • drewford

    Some added insight into the painting.

  • Faith Andrews Bedford

    I’ve read, with great interest, the wonderful comments about daseger’s blog. As the Benson scholar and his biographer I did want to let you know that there is a wonderful treasure trove of information already housed at the PEM’s library. In 1986 I did my original research there, in the Benson papers (as well as in many other archives, museums, historical societies and – hardship tour – Paris). If you want to really go back in time, check out the papers of this native son, born in Salem in 1862. Or check out the Benson website at I’ve just posted a blog on “Figure in White” at

    After nearly 30 years of researching and writing, curating exhibitions and speaking, I think I can say that Benson would want the museum to sell his painting to do what they need to do. As he once wrote his daughter, “Sell the darn painting. It’s what I do. It pays the rent.”

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