Breaking bequests row rages on

Although legislation allows museums to overturn donors' wishes after a set period, some people believe that the terms of a gift should never be broken. Patrick Steel reports
Patrick Steel
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When, in November, a Scottish parliamentary committee endorsed a bill to overturn William Burrell’s condition that the Burrell Collection should not leave the country, it divided the sector.

A leaked confidential submission from Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery, indicated that he shared Burrell’s concerns that lending overseas could lead to the collection being damaged.

However, a submission by British Museum director Neil MacGregor argued that the power to lend the collection abroad would be of “real public benefit”.

Last year, Croydon Council sold items from its Riesco Collection in Hong Kong, despite the bequest stating that the collection “be kept permanently in the UK”.

And Northampton Borough Council is looking to sell an item bequeathed by the fourth Marquis of Northampton, who stipulated “at no time to dispose of any part of the collections”.

In perpetuity

The fundamental purpose of a gift should be perpetual, says Adrian Babbidge, director of heritage consultancy Egeria. But he adds that as circumstances change over time, it is undesirable that “the dead should rule the living”, so it should be possible to vary a gift’s conditions to meet the needs of contemporary society, while taking into account the donor’s intention. The more recent the gift, the harder it may be to justify a change.

The Museums and Galleries Act 1992, governing the National Gallery, Tate and the National Portrait Gallery, explicitly states that donors’ wishes can be overturned after 50 years, while the National Heritage Scotland Act 1985 imposes a 25-year buffer on National Galleries of Scotland. The Museums Association’s acquisitions guidelines impose an ethical obligation on museums beyond any legal responsibility (see box).

But some in the sector, such as Selby Whittingham from Donor Watch, believe that museums “should never have the power to interfere with the conditions under which they willingly agree to accept a gift”.

When, in 2011, the philanthropist Denis Mahon made a bequest of 57 works to six museums, he went through the Art Fund, rather than making a direct gift, to ensure that should the museums fail to meet his conditions, the works would be withdrawn.

The Art Fund estimates that it places hundreds of objects a year in museums: the dead may yet have the last word.

MA guidelines

“If the donor wishes to apply conditions to the gift, carefully consider the resource and other management implications before deciding whether to proceed with the acquisition. It is wrong to lead a donor to believe that conditions attached to a gift are perpetual when they may not be.”

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