The Detroit Institute of Arts plans to sell a flag carried by U.S. soldiers at the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn River, the legendary Sioux and Cheyenne Indian slaughter of the 7th Cavalry under the command of General George Armstrong Custer. Sotheby’s estimates the relic from “Custer’s Last Stand” will sell for $2-5 million when offered in October. The museum intends to use the proceeds for future acquisitions.
Should the museum be selling off this piece of American history? Yes, but selling it off to the highest bidder is not the most ethical way to dispose of it. Doing so risks violating the public trust.
The 32 x 26-inch swallow-tail silk flag has been in the Detroit museum collection since 1895 when it was acquired from local collectors for $54 — $50 from a patron plus $4 by public subscription. It has local significance because Custer was from nearby Monroe and is considered a Michigan hero. But DIA says that it has not exhibited the flag for more than a century, though it has been loaned over the years.
According to Graham Beal, director of the museum, “In 1895, the flag fit in with the wide range of artifacts collected and displayed at that time [but] has long since ceased to meet current criteria as a work of art. It makes sense for us to sell it for the benefit of the collection.”
David Penny, DIA’s vice president of exhibitions and collections strategies, told the Detroit Free Press, “We don’t have the context or expertise to properly display and interpret it. It needs an appropriate home.”
An appropriate home is not the private vault of a collector. The only other flag associated with Custer’s Last Stand is at the federal battlefield museum in Montana and is in such poor condition that it is rarely displayed. The Detroit example should remain in a public institution. And the museum should take it upon itself to insure that this occurs.
DIA could negotiate a private sale to another museum or historical society, or to a private collector who pledges eventually to donate it to such an institution. DIA could sell the flag at auction but enable the winning bid to be preempted, at a discount, by a qualifying nonpropfit that promises to make the flag accessible to the public.
The Michigan State Attorney General could help keep this bit of local history in the state by ordering DIA to find a local institutional buyer, or to allow Michigan nonprofits to preempt the hammer price at Sotheby’s. (The New York State Attorney General ordered such a preemption option when the New-York Historical Society sold off it’s European and Colonial American paintings in 1995. The result was that several New York museums were able to acquire important works.)
Evidently, none of these remedies is even contemplated let alone put in place for the Detroit Institute of Arts sale.
Museums maintain that unrestricted sales on the open market maximize proceeds that allow them to acquire more art, thereby serving the public. But museums and other nonprofits exist to preserve important items and make them accessible to the public. Whether those items are purchased or donated, the institutions that hold them should make every effort to keep them in the public sphere.
The American Association of Museums and Association of Art Museum Directors should acknowledge this principle and enshrine it in their guidelines. At present, these organizations advise their members to spend proceeds of sales on art rather than operations. But it should be accepted practice and the norm that objects deaccessioned from museums be made accessible first to other nonprofits that intend to preserve and display them. Such practice would serve to distance our public institutions from the market, and would benefit the public for which the organizations were created.