In the 1940s, the SCMA deaccessioned and disposed of nearly 100 artworks from its collection. Most of these were American paintings, including some of the first works acquired by the college.
The first mention of undoing the college’s earliest collection came from Nelson C. White, a prosperous patron of the museum and friend of Dwight Tryon, the artist, Smith College professor from 1886 to 1923, and generous donor—of many of his own works—to the school’s collection. In 1934, White asked about the possibility of purchasing certain American artworks from the collection, prominently including Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s Lute Player and works by Abbott Handerson Thayer. This brief correspondence appears to have planted a seed in the mind of staff at the SCMA that a market existed for its bounty of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century American paintings. After receiving a postcard from Harry Eichleay Art Co. in 1940, the museum began corresponding with the Pittsburgh, PA dealer regarding the disposal of “a number of original oil paintings.” By the end of 1942, the SCMA had deaccessioned fifteen paintings from the collection for a total of $150. It is unknown for what that money was used.
The Eichleay sale was executed under the leadership of Jere Abbott, beloved director of the SCMA from 1932 to 1946, who in 1945 also began communicating with the Gimbel Brothers Department store regarding the further “disposal” of works from the SCMA collection. Presumably inspired by a form letter from Gimbels dated to June 1945, Abbott appears to have begun corresponding with the department store in July of that year, while simultaneously expressing disinterest in the opportunity to President Herbert Davis. Despite concerns about publicity and mentions of restricting the sale to “surplus paintings,” Abbott and Davis proceeded, encouraging the continuation of the project under Frederick Hartt, who served as interim director of the SCMA from 1946 to 1947.
A scholar of art from the Italian Renaissance and former Monuments Man, Hartt began his brief directorship by resuming the search for a suitable venue through which to sell what the museum considered its unwanted art. In mid-October of 1946, Davis instructed Hartt to compile lists of art that the museum would be interested in removing from the collection. The project proceeded quickly from there, as Hartt garnered trustee approval and sent the lists to art department faculty, while separately contacting Macbeth Galleries and Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York about the possibility of their “handling” the SCMA’s art. In November 1946, Hartt settled on Kende Galleries at Gimbels as the primary venue for the sale, as they were able to put the art on the market by the end of the calendar year—and were “willing to take care of the absolute junk,” as Hartt characterized it. Shortly thereafter, a check for $3,000 arrived at the SCMA, with the notation that it was “to be applied to the redecoration of the Museum.” Some deaccessioned works did not go to Gimbels, though, with the aforementioned Mr. White acquiring two paintings directly from the museum and smaller dealers attending to what Hartt described as “the best of [the] American nineteenth century pictures” that were “no longer desire[d].” Although most lots were not on the market until early in 1947, by the end of 1946 several artworks had already sold, and alumnae and donor pushback began rolling in. All in all, in the span of six years, at least one hundred artworks left the SCMA collection, most of which were American works dated to or purchased in the nineteenth century.