Bids for the Lynne Drexler painting came in fast and frequent, eclipsing the auction house estimate of $40,000 to $60,000 almost immediately. Several bidders were willing to go high, eventually driving the final price to a staggering $1.197 million.

The buyer of the piece by the late artist, who spent much of her adult life on Monhegan Island, was anonymous. The seller was the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.

“Shocked is a fair statement,” museum director Christopher Brownawell said of the sale price. “I don’t think anyone expected that outcome.”

“Flowered Hundred,” a 1962 painting by Lynne Drexler, who summered on Monhegan Island for two decades before moving there full time for the final 16 years of her life. Christie’s Images Ltd. 2022

The March 9 sale of “Flowered Hundred” at Christie’s Auction House in New York offered an unequivocal sign of how hot the private market has become for abstract expressionist work by female artists, and for Drexler’s work in particular. The transaction also affords the Farnsworth a unique opportunity to use proceeds from that sale to purchase work from other artists and further its goal of diversifying the museum collection. It plans to sell another of Drexler’s paintings at auction this spring for the same purpose.

It’s rare for museums to sell work to private collectors, a process called deaccession that means to officially remove from a collection. As such, it often invites scrutiny.

“This isn’t something any museum takes lightly,” Brownawell said. “We’re constantly looking at our collection and making decisions. How do we improve or strengthen our collection? Are there opportunities to enhance the collection?”


In the end, Farnsworth staff and board members felt they needed to prioritize work from more contemporary artists (Drexler died more than 20 years ago), especially women and artists of color. Many museums are making similar commitments to diversify. And because the Farnsworth has four other Drexler paintings, the one that sold and the other that soon will follow were seen as expendable.

Still, museums are often criticized for selling off work, most recently during the pandemic when some art institutions relaxed long-held guidelines and sold valuable pieces to private collectors just to stay afloat. And the Farnsworth has its critics too.

Among those who questioned the decision is the Rockland museum’s former director, Chris Crosman, who held the post when the original gift of Drexler’s paintings was made.

“Museums like the Farnsworth were built through gifts from private donors,” he said. “As soon as donors hear donations are being sold off, even if it’s for a good cause, they might think twice before doing so again. I’ve talked to several people who are past donors, and they are basically saying, ‘I won’t give again because of this.’ ”

Susan Danly, former curator at the Portland Museum of Art, who oversaw a major Drexler exhibit there, said she understands why some might feel strongly about seeing certain paintings taken out of the public arena.

“I think when you have a personal connection to an artist, you treasure every object,” Danly said. “But the Farnsworth isn’t spending these proceeds on lightbulbs. It’s a proper use.


“I’m less concerned with the sale because I know how much it will enhance the Farnsworth’s ability to add to their collection. They are a smaller museum. This is huge to them.”

The other winner, Danly said, is Drexler, whose work was often overlooked during her lifetime – a fate shared by many women, especially those, like Drexler, whose spouses were prominent artists, too.

Drexler has always been revered by the artist community on Monhegan Island, where she spent her later years and where she died.

“Everyone there is so grateful her work is reaching a wide audience that we all thought it really deserved,” Danly said.

“Saha,” a 1959 oil-on-canvas painting by Lynne Mapp Drexler, is one of four Drexler’s in the Farnsworth Museum’s collection. Drexler lived on Monhegan Island until she died in 1999. Farnsworth sold one of her paintings at auction this month for $1.2 million. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


Drexler was born in 1928 and grew up in Virginia. She moved to New York in the mid-1950s to study with Hans Hofmann, a German-American painter and teacher, and Robert Motherwell, a young contemporary of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Both were early practitioners of what became known as abstract expressionism, a movement that modernized American art in the mid-20th century by building off elements of European abstract styles with nontraditional processes and materials.


In 1962, Drexler married John Hultberg, who also was a painter in the abstract expressionist style. His work was often dark; hers awash in bright colors.

Both were deep in the city’s art and society scene in the 1960s and ’70s. They even lived for a time at the famed Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, which had become a commune of sorts for artists, musicians and writers. Pollock and pop artist Andy Warhol lived there. So did writers Dylan Thomas and Arthur Miller. Bob Dylan called the hotel home in the early ’60s. Punk rocker Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, there in 1978.

Drexler drew inspiration from classical music and attended concerts frequently. She was fond of Jack Daniels whiskey.

As a couple, Drexler and Hultberg traveled often, sometimes for artistic motivation, sometimes just to rest. One of their regular getaways was a house on Monhegan Island, which had an established artist colony.

The couple spent summers on Monhegan until 1983, when they decided to move there full time. The isolation didn’t suit Hultberg, though. He moved to Portland in 1985 and then back to New York. Drexler never left, and although she didn’t paint landscapes, the island’s isolated beauty became a muse for her later work. When she died in 1999, she and her husband were estranged.

Elizabeth Moss, who owns fine art galleries in Portland and Falmouth that represent Drexler’s work through her estate, said Hultberg was considered a superstar in the 1960s, but Drexler’s work didn’t generate the same interest.


“She was literally ignored by the major museums in New York City in the 1960s,” Moss said. “That was typical for female artists. And she eventually grew disheartened by the art scene in New York. I think that’s why she ended up on Monhegan.”

After her death, Drexler’s estate gifted many of her paintings to museums in Maine, including the Portland Museum of Art, the Bates College Museum of Art, the Monhegan Museum, of course, and the Farnsworth.

In the 20-plus years since she died, interest in her work has grown steadily. A few years ago, one of her paintings was featured in an Architectural Digest story about singer John Legend and model Chrissy Teigen’s New York apartment. The painting is featured prominently on a wall behind a grand piano.

Moss Galleries has sold many pieces as well, although Moss wouldn’t say for how much or to whom.

Danly said the recent interest in Drexler’s work puts her in the “upper pantheon of American painters.”

“We’re in a moment now when we are reassessing a lot of things in American culture,” she said. “Certainly, she’s a woman artist, and a feminist artist, but she didn’t just want to be those things. She wanted to be recognized as an artist, period.“


Moss said she was surprised to see the Farnsworth put two of Drexler’s paintings up for auction.

“Right now, there is a huge appetite for museums to collect women abstract expressionists,” she said. “(‘Flowered Hundred’) was a crème de la crème piece.”


The Farnsworth Art Museum, established in 1948, specializes in American contemporary art – particularly artists who worked in Maine – and is perhaps best known for its collection of paintings by the Wyeth family.

It’s a small museum, with an operating budget of $4.5 million, according to its most recent tax filings. In 2019 and 2020, it ended the year in the red, although its endowment grew to $22 million.

Brownawell said the museum puts pieces up for sale rarely and does so with a “surgical, strategic approach.” In the recent case, staff looked at its collection of Drexler paintings and considered two main questions: 1. Do we have multiples pieces from the same period? And 2. Do we still have the ability to celebrate the artist?


The answer to both, Brownawell said, was yes.

Christine Vincent, former president of the Maine College of Art & Design and now project director of The Aspen Institute, said the process for museums to sell work is spelled out clearly by two major trade groups – the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums.

She said it seems clear the Farnsworth followed protocol with the Drexler paintings but agreed that the process can be fraught.

“Knowledgeable donors now think about the issue of deaccessioning with respect to their gifts,” Vincent said. “Some donors prohibit it as a term of their gift, although many museums would decline such an encumbered contribution. Others allow it after a period of time (several decades) in which the artwork is exhibited regularly.”

Recent examples of deaccessioning, Vincent said, include the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s sale of a Picasso sculpture as a duplicate. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art also recently sold duplicate artworks in order to fund diversification of the art collection.

In some cases, decisions are far more controversial. In 2018, the Berkshire Museum in western Massachusetts sparked an investigation by the state attorney general when it announced plans to sell 40 pieces of art, including a Norman Rockwell painting, to boost its endowment fund.


The decision even resulted in sanctions against the museum by the Association of Art Museum Directors.

In 2020, the Baltimore Museum sold a Warhol painting, among other pieces, and some of the proceeds were used to pay staff salaries amid revenue losses during the pandemic. Former trustees have called for an investigation, two board members resigned and two former chairmen rescinded pledged gifts, according to published reports.

Crosman, the former Farnsworth director, said he deaccessioned work during his tenure and now regrets doing so. He said he strongly supports museums that wish to expand their collections by adding art by women and people of color but thinks staff should be more creative.

“Museums hold these pieces in trust for the public,” he said.

Asked about Crosman’s criticism, Brownawell said: “Everybody has a different perspective.”

“We’ve been clear and upfront about what the potential and future use of those pieces are,” he said. “We don’t take pieces with restrictions. We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t keep trying to look for ways to improve our collection overall.”

The museum’s board was “100-percent behind” the decision, Brownawell said.

“Herbert’s Garden,” a 1960 painting by artist Lynne Drexler, who split time between New York and Monhegan Island Courtesy of Farnsworth Art Museum

The second Drexler piece that will be sold by the Farnsworth, titled “Herbert’s Garden,” painted in 1960, will go to auction this spring. Brownawell said he has no idea what it might sell for but given the strong interest in her other work, the sum could be substantial.

Whatever work the Farnsworth ends up acquiring from the proceeds, they will always carry a credit indicating that the sale of Lynne Drexler’s paintings made those acquisitions possible.

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