Museums’ Acquisition Policy

October 14, 2009

As publicly-funded bodies whose directors are accountable to central governments, European museums have to be especially careful when offering to purchase any items. In the litigious world of today, museums are often the target of groups who try to make political capital out of the fact that ancient artefacts and human remains from a variety of cultures are housed in these buildings for public display.
With the 19th century vogue for collecting among the gentry and wealthier citizens, several very important collections were established which have been sources of knowledge for subsequent generations of students. In the 20th century, especially in mainland Europe, in the turmoil of war many objects were removed from captured cities, both by the Axis powers and by the Soviets; it would be naive to think that the western Allies never indulged in this practice.
Before acquiring objects, musuems are now required to carry out ‘due diligence’, similar to what happens when one corporation offers ambien to acquire another. The aim of this process is to establish the ownership of the objects to be acquired, and to avoid embroiling the museum in any expensive, long-running, legally complex or politically embarassing disputes.
The guidelines in force in the United Kingdom are quite comprehensive, requiring the donor/seller to supply information concerning the known history and provenance of the object, including:

      • name of discoveror

 

      • date and place of discovery

 

      • circumstances of discovery

 

      • history of sales and catalogue listings

 

    • any relevant involvement by the authorities (e.g. Treasure Valuation Committee)

The donor/seller must sign a written statement confirming that he/she is the absolute beneficial owner of the object(s), free from third party claims and encumbrances, and offering to sell or donate the same to the museum, and that any information provided as to the provenance of the object(s) is correct to the best of his/her knowledge, information and belief. This applies even if the museum is not paying for the item, but is receiving a gift.
The curator of the receiving museum or institution must also be very careful, making a corresponding signed statement to the effect that he/she has made reasonable enquiries in respect of the acquisition (and summarizing them) and that there is no reason in the DCMS guidelines for combating illicit trade (October 2005), nor in the museum’s own acquisition policy, not to make the proposed acquisition.
The curator is obliged to look at the following areas when considering the proposed acquisition:

      • to examine at first hand and to consider the type of item and likely place of origin

 

      • to take expert advice in areas outside the the curator’s own expertise

 

      • to determine whether the item was lawfully exported to the United Kingdom in the case of items sourced from abroad, and to check whether the export of the item was in line with the regulations of the country of origin, and other cultural property legislation applicable at the time the item was exported.

 

      • to evaluate the account given of the provenance (including export) of the item provided by the owner

 

      • to consider whether any specific permissions are required from the country of origin

 

    • If in doubt do not proceed

Critically, failure of the curator to satisfy him/herself on any of these points means that the acquisition should not go ahead, and if he/she believes a criminal offence may have been committed, to report the matter to the Police.

These requirements obviously place a burden of responsibility on the seller, who will be obliged to provide detailed information about the source of the object, and on the museum staff members who decide to acquire.

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