In 2004 the museum chose to hold those artworks back from the auction because of "their specific historical significance and connection to the earliest years of the Field Museum," McCarter wrote in the auction booklet. But four years later the Field's board voted to sell them, bringing in $3.8 million when the sale was completed in 2011.
At the time, the museum was feeling increasing financial pressure. Between 2000 and 2008 the Field had spent about $230 million on capital projects, but a fundraising campaign had fallen short of expectations and no more than $150 million had been raised for capital projects during those eight years.
O'Shea said new reasons for selling the Catlins emerged since 2004, including "a lack of expressed public interest in the paintings in the intervening years; concerns about the long-term care of the paintings (and the high cost of conservation); and the lack of suitable display opportunities within the Museum."
Meanwhile, in 2010 a financial consulting firm suggested that the Field go through its collections and make sure they were "fully cataloged … with items of potential sale value clearly identified." The museum followed the recommendation but nothing was sold as a result, O'Shea said.
Earlier this year, an exigency committee of scientists and executives that was convened to assess the Field's financial situation suggested that the museum consider selling some or all of its rare book collection. A report by the committee determined that the books are "not necessary for the research of the museum" and estimated their worth at $30 million to $50 million.
O'Shea said neither move was initiated by museum administrators, pointing out that the 2010 inventory was done "following the recommendations made by McKinsey & Company (the financial consulting firm) and at the request of the board." She pointed out that the majority of voting members of the exigency committee were scientists, not executives, and that the recommendation to consider selling rare books was nonbinding.
Westneat, the zoology curator, served on the exigency committee and said selling works that are less critical to the museum's mission would be worth it to save research at the Field.
Still, he said, "it makes me uncomfortable to think about selling collections like that to help the bottom line."
The Field's rare book collection contains what some experts believe to be the best set in existence of John James Audubon's "Birds of America," hand-colored engravings the pioneering nature artist painted in the early 19th century.
The collection documents the discovery, identification and study of plant and animal species going back hundreds of years, said Leslie Overstreet, curator of Natural-History Rare Books at the Smithsonian Libraries, who has done research in the collection.
"The museum scientists' work, based on the historical literature, has very practical applications — forestry management, fisheries, developing new medical drugs, studying endangered species," Overstreet said. "If (the books) go to private individuals, researchers can't get at them."
Sometimes, she noted, print dealers will buy rare books and sell off pages as separate prints. "The text is lost and the information in them is lost and they end up being pretty pictures on somebody's wall," Overstreet said.
Should the Field choose to sell off more collection items, it's possible that another museum could buy them and keep them accessible to scholars, researchers and members of the public. Field Museum policy enables museum officials to favor buyers most likely to provide the best care for the artifacts and to use them for education, research or exhibition — "if substantially equivalent offers are received."
But when the Catlin paintings were on the auction block in 2004, a $10.7 million bid from the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb., did not measure up to a better offer from an anonymous telephone bidder. Several Catlin scholars told the Tribune they have seen no sign of the paintings since the sale.