Since 1993, Persian and Levantine artifacts at the Louvre have been housed in the Sackler Wing of Oriental Antiquities. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the Sackler name has been taped over, a plaque acknowledging the family’s donations has been removed, and references to the Sackler Wing have been scrubbed from the Louvre’s website.
It’s the latest stage of a backlash that’s been building against the Sacklers in light of revelations about their involvement in the opioid crisis.
The Sackler family made its fortune (estimated by Forbes at $14 billion) through their ownership of Purdue Pharma, inventor and purveyor of the opioid painkiller OxyContin — a drug that has been blamed for the opioid epidemic. Purdue has been criticized for dishonest marketing practices that pushed OxyContin on patients who didn’t need it, or gave them dosage patterns that made the drug more addictive. A May court filing suggested that members of the Sackler family were involved in the dishonest marketing schemes for OxyContin to increase sales.
That’s forced famous museums and universities, longstanding beneficiaries of Sackler philanthropy, to grapple with whether they should care how the money donated to them was earned — and if so, what they need to do about it. Dramatic protests at museums around the world have been pushing them to take a stance. Earlier in July, protesters in front of the Louvre held a demonstration under a banner reading “Take down the Sackler name.”
Many museums, from the Met to the Guggenheim, have announced they won’t take further donations from parts of the family closely associated with Purdue Pharma. But in removing the Sackler name from the walls, the Louvre is taking that one step further. Other museums have stated that removing the Sackler name violates their legal obligations or their policies, or would be an “inappropriate attempt to disguise what happened.” The Louvre, though, one of the most prominent art museums in the world, seems to have decided that scrubbing the Sackler name from its walls is the right call.
A $14 billion fortune built in part on OxyContin marketing
The opioid crisis has killed more than 200,000 people. Purdue Pharma has been involved in marketing and distributing opioids since the very beginning of the crisis — and has been, various lawsuits have alleged, involved in deceptive practices dating as far back as 1995.
My colleague German Lopez wrote that in 2007, “Purdue and three of its top executives paid more than $630 million in federal fines for their misleading marketing, and the executives were each sentenced to three years of probation and 400 hours of community service.”
A new round of lawsuits alleges that they kept at the deceptive practices even after they were fined. In March, Purdue and the Sacklers agreed to a $270 million settlement with the state of Oklahoma over their role in the crisis. Purdue will pay $195 million and the Sacklers $75 million.
Until recently, the Sackler family — some of whom work at Purdue and some of whom spend their share of the Purdue fortune elsewhere — mostly avoided the firestorm over Purdue’s conduct. That started to change in 2017, when the New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe published an in-depth story about the family titled “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain.” Since then, organizations with Sackler wings and Sackler libraries have announced that they intend to examine their relationship with the donors.
The outrage has intensified this year. A January court filing in Massachusetts alleges that Richard Sackler, Purdue’s then-president, pushed for misleading marketing of OxyContin in other countries; other Purdue decision-makers had to talk him down. Sackler is quoted as calling for a “blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” (Purdue argues that the filing “is littered with biased and inaccurate characterizations of these documents and individual defendants, often highlighting potential courses of action that were ultimately rejected by the company.”)
In February, protesters at the Guggenheim dropped thousands of slips of paper down the museum’s central atrium, referencing the Sacklers’ “blizzard of prescriptions,” and called on the Guggenheim to stop accepting money earned from the opioid crisis.
In March, after a series of embarrassing disavowals by the institutions they funded, two Sackler charitable organizations announced they would temporarily pause their philanthropy.
Questions about Purdue’s responsibility for the crisis continue to make their way through courts around the country, so the settlements — and the protests — likely aren’t over.