The Royal Academy of Arts (RA) in London is considering selling a relief sculpture by Michelangelo to protect up to 150 jobs — about 40% of the museum’s workforce — threatened by COVID-19-related losses. Considered to be a national treasure, “The Virgin and Child with the Infant St. John” (c. 1504–1505) is the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in the country. The Art Newspaper estimated that it could be worth “several hundred million pounds,” a price tag that would virtually necessitate that the work be sold abroad.
The RA, which relies heavily on ticket sales and museum memberships, has experienced a 75% drop in revenue and anticipates £8 million (~$10.3 million) in financial losses this year. The institution has applied for a grant from the Culture Recovery Fund — an emergency £1.57 billion relief package from the Arts Council England — to cover costs from October 2020 through March 2021. Even if received, the grant would likely not address the full extent of its financial woes; the RA is currently consulting about major redundancy plans, as are the National Trust, Southbank Centre, Tate, Birmingham Museums Trust and Historic Royal Palaces.
The museum previously toyed with the idea of selling the work in 1978, while it was waiting on a government subsidy and owed £675,000 to Drummonds Bank, but financial restructuring took the sale off the table. Colloquially known as the Taddei Tondo, after the cloth merchant who commissioned it, the relief was made when Michelangelo was living in Florence. The piece is unfinished, likely due to the fact that Michelangelo relocated to Rome in early 1505 to throw his weight behind the sculpting of Pope Julius II’s tomb. The Tondo depicts an infant Christ twisting away from his mother, the Virgin Mary, as St. John the Baptist presents him with a goldfinch, a symbol of the “passion,” or Christ’s suffering.
The work was in Casa Taddei Florence until the early 19th century when it joined the collection of painter Jean-Bapiste Wicar in Rome. It was later acquired in 1822 by Lady Margaret Beaumont, the countess of Warwick and the wife of collector George Beaumont. It was bequeathed to the Royal Academy in 1830 after Lady Beaumont’s death with the intention that it would inspire young artists’ academic studies. There are two sketches of the Tondo in the museum’s collection: one by Sir David Wilkie and one by John Constable, who praised the sculpture as “one of the most beautiful works of art in existence.”
The potential sale will be discussed among the Royal Academicians, but it is unlikely that it will come to pass. In a statement, the Royal Academy said: “The Royal Academy of Arts has no intention of selling any works in its collection. We have the privilege and responsibility of being custodians of extraordinary works of art. It is our duty to look after our permanent collection, for current and future generations to enjoy.”
In contrast, an anonymous Academician, or a member of the Royal Academy, questioned the ethics of holding onto “a lump of marble that could make the RA financially secure for the years to come,” and noted that museum executives had been aware of the RA’s precarious financial situation for some time.
The debate is part of a larger one about the practice of deaccessioning works, an action increasingly taken by museums to fund the diversification of their collections — or more controversially, as in this case, to pay for operating costs. In a post on Twitter, Dan Hicks, curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, wrote: “When the Royal Academy sells the Taddei Tondo to save 150 jobs, it will be another urgent reminder that museums aren’t bank vaults, mausoleums or endpoints – but public spaces, unfinished gestures and live projects. And that we must place caring for people above caring for objects.”