The Riverside Museum, Glasgow. The Scottish Law Commission is seeking feedback from museums in Scotland on proposed changes to ownership legislation

Scottish museums welcome proposed changes to ownership law

Geraldine Kendall, 05.09.2012
But sector feels 50 years is too long to wait for transfer of title
Museum representatives in Scotland have welcomed the Scottish Law Commission’s (SLC) proposal to amend the rules on property ownership, but expressed concern that the suggested 50-year waiting period before ownership can be transferred is too long.

A report published by the SLC in May proposed a change in Scottish law that could convert possession of movable property to legal ownership after 50 years if an owner cannot be traced using due diligence.

The change is likely to benefit the museum sector, allowing institutions to catalogue collections more easily and loan, repatriate or dispose of unprovenanced items in their collection, as well as settling legal disputes over ownership.

At a meeting in Edinburgh last week, representatives from the Scottish museum sector said the 50-year holding period may be too long because some organisations would struggle to prove precisely when an item was acquired if, for example, it fell outside the memory of museum staff.

Commercial law professor Janet Ulph, who attended the meeting, said: “What emerged during the discussion was that you would need some sort of evidence of how long you’ve had the object.

"It cannot be assumed that there will always be some record of when it was acquired and the further you go back, the less likely that’s going to be."

Ulph, who is currently undertaking a research fellowship on disposal at the Museums Association, said: “Most people suggested reducing the period to 30 or 40 years so that it would be within the employment lifetime of a curator.”

Attendees at the meeting also argued that, if the proposal became law, the sector would need professional guidelines on the steps they should take to ensure due diligence in tracing owners.

“Consultation among museums would be needed so that guidance is drafted to reflect best professional practice before the legislation comes into effect,” said Ulph.

The proposed legislation, which would bring Scotland in line with practice in other countries, could be codified into law as early as 2014.

The SLC is continuing to consult with the museum sector throughout the process. Andrew Steven, lead commissioner on the report, has asked museum representatives for further feedback on the issue.

Steven said: “For example, do you have items in your collection where there is no record of how they were acquired? Do you have items where you have a lender's name but the lender lost contact with the museum years ago?"

The law on ownership of movable property is yet to be reassessed in England. Ulph said the English Law Commission is likely to wait and see the impact of the proposal in Scotland before implementing any changes to English law.

Respondents should email or send feedback directly to Anne Dagg at the Scottish Government at

All emails will be passed to David Seers at the Scottish Government.




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