Philly History Museum Sells Pieces of Its Past, Reviving a Debate

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PHILADELPHIA — A galloping horse weather vane sold for about $20,000, and the cigar store Indians brought in more than $1 million. A Thomas Sully oil painting of Andrew Jackson netted $80,500, and a still life by Raphaelle Peale, part of the family that put portraiture in this city on the map, was auctioned at Christie’s for $842,500.

These were just a few of more than 2,000 items quietly sold by the Philadelphia History Museum over the last several years, all part of an effort to cull its collection of 100,000 artifacts and raise money for a $5.8 million renovation of its 1826 building....

In general art and objects are supposed to be sold only to finance acquisitions, though different museums are governed by different standards. Art museums, regulated by a formal code of the Association of Art Museum Directors, may not sell work for any other reason.

As a history museum, though, this institution — formally called the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent — is subject to separate, less stringent guidelines put forward by other associations. So museum officials say the installation of new carpet, paint and lighting were all legitimate expenses to be paid from the proceeds under the guidelines of the American Association of Museums, which say that sales can be used for the “direct care” of a collection. Adding to the confusion, there is a third set of standards maintained by the American Association for State and Local History permitting proceeds to go toward the “preservation” of a collection, a similarly broad term....

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