Museums Can Make Art a Tough Give

In 1988, William Jordan saw a portrait in a catalog from a London auction house. The work was attributed to Justus Sustermans, a Flemish painter in the Medici court in Florence. But as an art historian, Mr. Jordan was sure it was actually a work by the 17th-century master Diego Velázquez.

He bought the painting for 1,000 pounds — much less than a Velázquez would have cost — and had it shipped to his home in Dallas, where it was cleaned and reframed. And there it hung for nearly 30 years.

Last year, his hunch was validated. The Prado Museum in Madrid, which owns a third of all of Velázquez’s works, said Mr. Jordan’s painting was the real thing.

Mr. Jordan then did something many art collectors dream of doing: He donated the work, worth an estimated $6 million, to the Prado, where it was quickly put into a show of Velázquez’s work. In addition to the exhibition, which runs through the fall, Mr. Jordan received a catalog filled with scholarly essays on the work and accompanying photos. And to top it off, he will be eligible for a tax deduction because the donation was made not to a foreign museum but to the American Friends of the Prado Museum, a United States-based charity.

If this seems like the way collectors typically sail through donations of art, think again. Mr. Jordan’s tale sounds like some supercharged episode of “Antiques Roadshow,” but most collectors struggle to donate their art, even valuable art, to museums.

Or as Evan Beard, national art services executive for U.S. Trust, put it: “If you have a Picasso worth $6 million or $7 million, every museum in the country will say thank you, thank you, thank you.” For other works, particularly collections of mixed quality, there is likely to be a negotiation.

It’s a lot easier to donate art when the museum asks for it first. “My clients who have donated to museums have had really long-term relationships with the museums,” said Nilani Trent, an art adviser in Manhattan. “They’ve been part of the museum for many, many years. Usually, the museum has approached them and said, ‘This is a weak part of our collection.’”

Stephanie Ingrassia, who is a trustee of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which named a contemporary art gallery after her and her husband, Tim, made her first donation to the museum in 2007. It was a work by a well-known feminist artist, Ana Mendieta, called “Untitled (Guanaroca [First Woman]).”

The process was fairly painless because the museum did not have a piece of art by such a significant artist, Ms. Ingrassia said.

“It’s a piece that I loved, but my family didn’t really understand,” she said of the work, which is a photo of a vagina carved in sand. “It was very well received. It’s often on view.”

Since then, Ms. Ingrassia, 52, has donated about 10 works, and contributed money with other trustees toward additional pieces. But she said her interest — contemporary art — dovetailed with an area where the museum was expanding.

Other donations have a more difficult time getting approval. “We’re being very careful with what comes into the collection,” Ms. Ingrassia said. “We used to be a place where Grandma’s furniture ended up.”

Being turned down is a reality, though, for any collector. Ms. Trent has been trying to help a client donate his art to museums so that he can change the nature of his collection. His offers have been rejected.

“It’s not that they’re bad,” she said. “It’s that they don’t fill a hole.”

If a museum is on the fence about a donation or collection, it might ask for additional money in the form of an endowment to accept the art.

“The first thing people are surprised with is when the museum comes back and says, ‘I’ll take your painting if you give us an added endowment to care for the work of art,’” Mr. Beard said. “Usually, a museum will want one or two specific items in your collection to fill gaps, and they look at everything else as cost because they’re going to have to store it.”

Being asked for money after offering works of art may sound ungrateful. But museums are bound to maintain — and not sell off — their collections, and storing all the pieces they cannot show can cost thousands of dollars a year.

Yet Mr. Beard said the request for a significant sum could also be a signal to collectors that they should look elsewhere. “Is it better to go for a midsize regional museum where your works will be a focus,” he asked, “or an encyclopedic museum where your works will see the light of day every five years?”

Of course, museums are not the only place to donate art. Collectors can donate to charities where the art may be displayed or sold to finance projects. Jane Wilton, general counsel of the New York Community Trust, said the organization was given hundreds of works by Joaquín Torres-García in 1992.

The collector who donated the art wanted it to be used to pay for research into AIDS and H.I.V. And it did, though it took the community trust nearly 15 years to sell it all.

Institutions may push back on gifts for another reason: fear of provenance or authenticity. Antiquities are particularly fraught, given patrimony laws that protect artifacts.

“You may have some great Egyptian artifacts and you’d love to have them in the museum when you die, because who else is going to take them?” Mr. Schindler said. “But if you don’t have good proof that they came out of the ground before 1970, good luck.”

And there is the risk that cherished works of art are not real. Ms. Wilton said one such piece hangs in her office as a reminder to be diligent in evaluating bequests. “It’s supposed to be by Winslow Homer,” she said. “It turned out to be a Homer Simpson.”

One big benefit is whether the institution provides a tax deduction. If the work goes to a museum, the donor gets the full deduction. If it goes to a nonprofit where art is not central to the mission, the donor is eligible only for the value of the piece when it was purchased.

In 2014, a group of Spanish-art enthusiasts set up the American Friends of the Prado Museum, which promotes the museum in the United States. But it has the added benefit of ensuring that donors get a tax deduction for their gift, which they are technically donating to an American nonprofit organization that in turn lends it to the Prado. (The Louvre and the Vatican Library have similar 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations in the United States.)

Mr. Jordan, who was the deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth when he bought the Velázquez, is not, by his own admission, a wealthy man. But he said he had known every director of the Prado since the 1970s and wanted the museum have the piece.

“The museum has had a long relationship with Bill Jordan,” said Miguel Falomir, director of the Prado. “He’s not just a collector. He’s a scholar. He’s collaborated with us. He’s created exhibitions. He’s an old friend of the museum.”