Ethical debate: eBay

An increasing number of museums are using the online marketplace eBay to purchase items for their collections.

Should museums consider disposing of items by sale on eBay, and if they do, are there any implications that they need to bear in mind?

All transactions conducted on eBay are very open so that anyone with web access can view everything that is currently for sale and learn a considerable amount about the vendor's past history (but usually not their identity). This contrasts with the lack of transparency under which many transactions in cultural objects are conducted.

But the site is largely unregulated and it has, among other things, become a major outlet for unprovenanced antiquities, both from this country and abroad, many of which may be illicit. Archaeologists have grown increasingly concerned about this and the Portable Antiquities Scheme hopes shortly to conclude a memorandum of understanding with eBay where items identified as potential treasure will be taken off the site.

Any museum that is intending to dispose of objects from its collections should go through the procedures set out in the MA's ethical guidelines.

Museums are well-respected institutions; their patronage is much sought after. While eBay continues to be a major outlet for material of unknown provenance, museums should seriously consider whether selling items on the site sends out the right signals.

Roger Bland is the head of treasure and portable antiquities at the British Museum

This issue was recently considered by the ethics committee of the Museums Association. eBay has considerable potential to make interesting items available to a wide audience, and some museums regularly acquire items in this way. For museums considering disposal (after following the ethically approved deaccessioning procedures), the ethics committee felt that, in principle, eBay was as ethical a mechanism for disposal as, say, an auction house.

But, as with all aspects of disposal, staff should be sensitive to how they wish their museum to be perceived.

One of the main arguments against disposals from collections is the potential for a loss of trust if the public feels that museums are not fulfilling that central purpose of holding collections in trust for future generations. Disposing of objects through eBay might be considered a rather cavalier way of releasing objects that are no longer wanted by museums compared with, for instance, selecting a suitable accredited museum that would provide a better context for the objects. Sale on eBay might give the impression that the museum was only interested in raising money, not in finding the most suitable home for those objects.

Vanessa Trevelyan is the head of the Norfolk Museum and Archaeology Service and the convener of the MA's ethics committee