Met Museum to Sell George Washington Portrait for Up to $2.5M

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is deaccessioning a rare oil painting of George Washington, which could sell for as much as $2.5 million at a Christie’s auction in New York later this month. Created by American artist Gilbert Stuart, the portrait of the first president of the United States has been at The Met since it was entrusted to the museum in 1944 by its late owner, Richard De Wolfe Brixey. After about 80 years at the museum, the painting will be sold to raise money for the museum’s acquisition fund. Assuaging the concerns of deaccession critics, the museum says it will keep a duplicate portrait.

Depicting Washington wearing a white ruffled shirt and a dark overcoat against a red background, the painting is one of 14 works in the Vaughan portrait series. The group of works was named after John Vaughan, a wine merchant who commissioned what was initially thought to be the original version, but later revealed to be a replica, as historians believe the initial painting was covered up by the artist, according to Christie’s.

“Based on the scholarship we consulted, the original version was erased by the artist, and the surviving 14 examples were all begun and most completed within a few months of the fall of 1795,” Martha Willoughby, a specialist in Christie’s Americana Department, told Hyperallergic.

Four of the Vaughan portraits are currently held in private collections, while others are in several museums and universities, including the National Gallery of Art, the Frick Collection, the University of Virginia, and Harvard Art Museums, according to Christie’s. The portrait to be auctioned later this month, dubbed the Philips-Brixey version for its previous owners, is believed to be one of the earliest in this sequence of paintings, although the chronology is uncertain.

“The Met annually deaccessions works of art, following comprehensive review with a focus on similar or duplicate objects,” a spokesperson for The Met said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic. Another Vaughan painting, known as the Gibbs-Channing-Avery portrait, is also part of the museum’s permanent collection and currently on view in the Portraiture and Atlantic World galleries. The museum auctioned off Pablo Picasso’s first Cubist sculpture, “Tête de femme (Fernande)” (1909), through Sotheby’s in May 2022 to fund its future acquisitions. The piece sold for $48.4 million. In 2021, The Met also deaccessioned more than 200 prints and photographs to help it recover from a $150 million revenue deficit as a result of the pandemic.

The George Washington portrait will be auctioned alongside a slew of American antiquities and artwork including paintings, sculptures, furniture, and silver in the annual Important Americana sale at Christie’s scheduled for January 18 and 19.

“The funds from this sale will enable the Museum to further prioritize the acquisition of outstanding works of art,” The Met’s spokesperson added.

In addition to the Vaughan paintings, Stuart painted another group of portraits of the president, known as the Athenaeum series. Unlike the Vaughan series, the artist left these subsequent portraits unfinished in order to use them as the source for copies. There are approximately 75 of the paintings, and their image was used as the basis for the $1 bill.

Gilbert Stuart, “George Washington” (1795), oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 25 1/4 inches (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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