Delaware museum officials desperate for cash have removed one of their prized paintings from their walls but remain tight-lipped about the work’s future.
Winslow Homer’s “Milking Time,” among the Delaware Art Museum’s most treasured works, disappeared from its wall and collections database earlier this month, shortly after the museum announced that it would sell as many as four artworks to repay its construction debt and replenish its endowment.
Museum officials have declined to confirm whether the 1875 oil painting of rural Americana is among works to be sold over the next few months, according to the News-Journal of Wilmington, Del.
However, museum and art experts say the change is suspicious and likely indicates the painting will be sold, the publication added.
“Milking Time” is considered a landmark painting by Homer, regarded as one of the greatest American painters of the 19th century.
Homer, the renown landscape painter, created “Milking Time” in 1875 while living on a farm in upstate New York.
“Milking Time” is a “landmark painting for him,” according to Kathleen Foster, who curated an exhibition of Homer’s seascapes for the Philadelphia Museum of Art in late 2012. The Philadelphia museum owns four Homer works, including one of his most famous, “The Life Line.”
“Milking Time” was painted during a formative time in Homer’s career, a period in which he was searching for an identity as an artist, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
“He found and began to cultivate the new techniques and subject matter that a rising generation of American artists would use to establish a uniquely native art form,” according to the publication.
Homer’s contribution to American art during this time is significant, the Monitor added.
“Homer was an important hinge figure,” says Bruce Robertson, chief curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Center for American Art. “This is the decade in which American art ceases to be merely narrative and becomes real painting.”
Neither Foster nor Jeffrey Fuller, an accredited senior appraiser in Philadelphia, could estimate “Milking Time’s” value, but they said it is extremely rare for a Homer piece of that caliber to leave a museum.
“Every collector says, ‘Is this going to be the last great Homer on the market?'” Foster told the News-Journal. “Everybody who can write a big check for a painting is going to pay attention to it.”
Other museums, she said, likely won’t be able to afford it. In 1998, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates reportedly paid more than $30 million for Homer’s 1885 painting “Lost on the Grand Banks,” considered a record price for such a piece.
Museum board members have said they will not release the names of the works to be sold, explaining that it could lower their value on the market. Museum leaders have promised not to sell any work acquired as a gift or bequest.
Museum CEO Mike Miller previously said the museum hoped to sell as many as four works by October to meet a deadline imposed by its bank to repay $19.8 million in debt from a 2005 facilities expansion.
The trustees hope to raise a total of $30 million from the sale, funneling the rest into the museum’s $25 million investment reserve to ensure long-term stability. The only alternative, leaders said, was for the museum to shut down, according to the Delaware newspaper.
The museum purchased “Milking Time” in 1967 using a bank loan and donations from the Friends of Art, a group of community supporters, Miller said.
(Top: Milking Time, Winslow Homer, 1875, Delaware Art Museum.)