Ownership disputes

Ethics case studies
Dilemma:

The museum service has been contacted by a person who has inherited a private country estate house. They would like to return it to its former glory by reinstating works of art which they believe were given on loan to the museum by their deceased relative 30 years ago. The museums documentation records for some of the historical collections is patchy.

On checking the status of these artworks they find that a form has been signed by the former owner of the art but it is not a SPECTRUM approved transfer of title and the terms are not absolutely clear – it is ambiguous as to whether it was intended as a loan or a deposit.

However there is a presumption by the museum that the artwork was intended as a deposit. The new estate owner comes back to say that they feel the former art owner was exploited and was suffering from dementia when they signed over the art. They can offer no medical proof to support this.

The artworks are pastels and are not on permanent display due to conditions required for long term exhibition. They have been accessed by researchers in the past and have been featured in museum temporary displays. Should the museum return the art to the house where they were originally displayed?

Response:

Issues of ownership are likely to be legal matters as well as ethical dilemmas.

Situations in which descendants seek to reclaim a gift or donated item do occur from time to time and can be destabilising for a museum. It is therefore important that these matters are conducted respectfully.

The Code of Ethics states that museums should “Discuss expectation and clarify in writing the precise terms on which all parties are accepting transfer of title. Exercise sensitivity towards donors when accepting or declining gifts and bequests.” (Para. 2.6).

However, in instances where documentation is incomplete, the museum should take legal advice as to the ownership status of the object in question. Some advice on legal ownership is available from the Museums Association's Curatorially Motivated Disposals document. However, this should not replace advice from a lawyer in this situation.

There is also an ethical question about how to respond to the request from the descendant of the donor. This will depend on the museum’s approach.

If you have grounds to believe that it is a genuine claim; that the person asking for its return is the legitimate claimant (and that there aren’t competing claims from other descendants); and that the artworks would be better cared for and more accessible to the public in private hands, then there may be a case for deaccessioning the items.

On the other hand, you may believe that the artworks are best cared for by your museum and that the museum is their rightful owner. You may also find that it is impossible to determine to whom ownership should be transferred.

If you receive supporting legal advice, the best course of action would be to respond in writing setting out reasons for wanting to retain the artworks in the museum collection. You might explain how they are of relevance to the collection and also of public interest, and any further plans for display or use in programming.

Links and downloads

Code of Ethics

Curatorially Motivated Disposal (pdf)

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