Number of unauthorised BECM disposals may never be known - Museums Association

Number of unauthorised BECM disposals may never be known

Former director in dispute with trustees over 144 missing items
The true scale of either legitimate or unauthorised disposals from the now-closed British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM) may never be known, according to a BBC Inside Out West investigation broadcast this week.

Bristol City Council told the programme it has now reviewed the whole collection but does not have any previous records to check against because the museum had never carried out a full audit before.

BECM trustees are aware of 144 items from eight lenders that were sold to a London-based ethnographic art dealer for £115,000, allegedly without their approval. Some later appeared at auction without any record of their provenance.

Neil Cossons, chairman of the trustees, described the sale as "unconscionable" and told the programme: “There was no authorisation at all of any of the material that went to the dealer.”

The objects include a 19th century Thomas Butterworth painting of the slave ship Dunira, which was auctioned at Christie’s in 2009 for £61,250. The painting had been given to the museum by the Caldecote family, one of whom told the BBC that they had documentation “that clearly shows that it was loaned”.

Some items, including a valuable Maori pare (wooden lintel) sold to a private buyer in September 2010, have now been traced and are expected to be returned to their original owners. Other lenders are seeking compensation settlements.

The BBC investigation also discovered that four statuettes had been auctioned off in 2007, suggesting that the museum may have begun disposing of objects earlier than previously thought.

The BECM dismissed the museum’s former director, Gareth Griffiths and called in police last year when the allegations of unauthorised sales came to light.

In a statement released through his solicitor at the time, Griffiths vigorously denied profiting from the sale, saying it went ahead with trustees’ knowledge and agreement and receipts were fully audited.

The art dealer, Douglas Barrett, said in a statement to London Metropolitan Police that Griffiths had told him the museum was entitled to sell the objects because it was a private charity, but had instructed him not to tell anyone about their provenance because it could be “politically embarrassing”.

Barrett has now returned some of the items.

The police later dropped their criminal investigation into the case, saying it was a “civil matter”. No one was arrested or charged and there is no suggestion that any individual profited from the sale.

A civil dispute between Griffiths and the BECM over the missing objects is ongoing.

The award-winning museum closed to the public in 2008. It has made losses of more than £870,000 since 2006 and was last year forced to abandon plans to relocate to London.

The collection, which holds over 553,000 artefacts, costumes, photographs and film relating to Britain’s colonial history, has been transferred by Deed of Gift to the Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives Service (BMGA) and is now stored at an undisclosed location.

BMGA told Museums Journal it is planning to use the material in the redevelopment of Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery.

Griffiths could not be reached for comment.

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