♦ Issues in Deaccession: Cultural Property or Just Property?

 Caroline Brandau

“Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artifacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.”

-The Museums Association of the United Kingdom, 2007




The factors behind deaccessioning a piece of artwork are complicated and varied, and often the people and institutions involved lose sight as to why the piece was acquired in the first place. Many times, a museum or gallery feels like it has to sell or keep an artwork to keep the institution alive. Unfortunately though, as time goes on, the less honorable a museum acts in the case of deaccession, the harder things fall in the end. Although there are numerous institutions that deaccession artwork in a fair and legal way, institutions come under fire if the situation is mishandled. If we are to protect our cultural artifacts over the span of time, we must first address the idea that sometimes museums do not really know best, a controversial notion considering the amount of faith we put in the respectability and honor of a museum. Deaccession is sometimes necessary to the livelihood of an institution, but often times the right to sell a piece of artwork is abused by those who do not see art as a cultural artifact to be cherished. Because of that, the university art museum or gallery must take that into consideration in their overall mission in maintaining the livelihood of their pieces of artwork.

            One issue is the very nature of what deaccession is to begin with. Deaccession is the selling, exchange, or gifting of artworks in a museum or gallery for the benefit of that museum of gallery. There are several reasons and standards in which a museum and gallery why they are forced to sell of an artwork. The San Jose State University Library in New Mexico controls the locations and cares for the artwork that is shown throughout the university and they explain their reasoning for deaccessioning works clearly. Their criteria and reasons for which they could deaccession an artwork can be understood in seven ways. Their first reason is that of care. Deaccession might be necessary if the university is unable to care properly for the object, or a discrepancy is found between the cost of care to the object “and the aesthetic, historical, or financial value of the object.” Second, the issue of quality; that if an object is of obviously inferior quality, whether intrinsically or relatively in comparison to the other objects in its collection, it is under threat of being sold. Third, redundancy, or if a work is found to be a duplicate of another work in its collection, and is not a part of a series, “or that the object is repeated in kind by a superior example within the collection.”[1]

        Fourth is inappropriateness, determining that an object lacks a demonstrable relevance to its audience and to the collection. Fifth, if the work was obtained illegitimately, as in it was stolen or illegally exported or imported, in which its possession was a violation of state and federal laws. Sixth is the issue of a forgery, or an object that is proven to be a fake; although if this criterion is proven in the deaccession process, the object most likely cannot be re-sold into the art market. The most controversial reasoning in the university art setting though is the seventh reason: act of sacrifice. “It may be determined that an object of quality is of such a relative value to a collection that it should be sacrificed to strengthen another area.” In conversational standards, this means that according to the standards of the San José University Library, they will sell a prominent artwork if they think its sale can benefit another area of the University. (Ibid, Punches [1])

            This is one of the top issues facing university art museums and galleries, primarily because the issue of cultural property is often subject to different interpretations. For instance, the sale of one artwork is controversial in itself. Often, museums and galleries sell artwork to strengthen their institution. That is, they sell the work in order to buy more artwork. Or in some cases, to benefit the institution on the whole, such as adding more space in which works can be viewed. The university museum or gallery, however, is constantly under threat of controversy due to the nature of conflicting arguments as to the ownership of all of the artistic property contained on their campus. Therefore, if the university is in need of money, they can have a legal right to sell off all the artworks in their museum or gallery without even informing the board of directors of the museum or gallery itself. And, as one can imagine, if even selling one piece can subject the museum to major public fall out, imagine if you sold the entire institutions worth of their art? This notion raises other questions though: is the artwork owned by the university? Or is it property of the gallery or museum in which is housed, which happens to be on university property? We will attempt to answer some of these questions later on. (Ibid, Punches [1])

            Another important question is: how does a gallery or museum go about deaccessioning an artwork? The University of California in Los Angeles has extensive documents in how a deaccession of artwork may be achieved. According to their policies, the following guidelines must be in place in order to go about the sale. First, the gallery or museum must honor all legal restrictions pertaining to the work, whether it was acquired by the gallery or gifted to them. A part of this legality, the sale of the work must not contain any legal restrictions to the buyer, but may contain certain stipulations instead. In addition, the original buyer of the work (whether the gallery itself or person who originally gifted the work to the gallery), must be notified as to its sale or gifting, or if not living, the buyers next of kin. This is not only a notification, but also letting them voice any stipulations they wish to make over its sale. In some states in America and the European Union, the artwork is also subject to a resale royalty’s law; if the work in question is sold for over one thousand dollars, five percent of the sale must go to the original artist. Second, the work, according to U.C.L.A. and practiced by many other museums and galleries, must be sold at auction. Their reasoning for doing this is due to an auction being the best widely public forum in which to sell the art work for the highest price available. The gallery can put a reserve (a minimum price in which the work must be sold at auction) on the work, thus giving them a good price,which in addition, lessens any criticism they could get from the sale itself due to the high price they can get and the public forum concept. The auction house also investigates into the entire proceeding, making sure that the work was legally obtained and not a forgery, and that the gallery has the right to sell the works.[2]

            Numerous questions are raised upon a controversial deaccession of an artwork as we will find.  For starters, how does America differ from other countries when it comes to deaccession? America has lacking to no government institution for the protection of its cultural artifacts, but other countries differ immensely. We do have museum governing boards, such as the American Association of Museums which protects museums and informs the public about any disreputable things regarding museums although it is not government mandated. But after that, museums and galleries are essentially on their own. For instance, in Canada, their strict artistic governing body states that the only time you can deaccession an artwork ever is to use the funds the acquisition other artworks or to place the funds in a inflation free endowment.[3] What role do the employees of an institution have in protesting a deaccession? It varies, as they can speak up and site case studies of deaccessions gone wrong, they can appeal to the museum network boards to create a public ruckus that gets the public on their side. But many times unless a public battle is brought about by them, the employee can be powerless; as most often the institution itself is controlled by the trustees and its board of directors.[4]

            Risks often come up in relation to deacquisitioned artwork. For instance, what sort of public hit will the museum or gallery face upon their decision to sell the work? In this case, we turn to a national association that in many cases, creates the standards and practices of excellence by which a museum or gallery is judged. These institutions are often members of the American Association of Museums, whose mission statement is to “strengthen museums through leadership, collaboration and service.” Their goal is to develop the standards and practices that best help the museum and the community, while also becoming a gathering and sharing knowledge-base, and being the top advocates for concerned issues regarding the museum community. In a nutshell, they want to ensure “that the museum remains a vital part of the American landscape, connecting people with the greatest achievements of the human experience, past, present and future.”[5]

            While officially it is not part of the government, the American Association of Museums has power in numbers. It has eighteen thousand members (museum professionals and volunteers), two hundred and fifty corporate members, and represents about three thousand institutions. Although the American Association of Museums doesn’t rule over each individual institution, they do decree that their specific practices and standards must be upheld. According to article three, section two of the governance of the American Association of Museums, “Membership may be withdrawn by the Board of Directors…for due cause. Due cause shall be construed to mean use of a membership in the Association to work for purposes inconsistent with the mission and objectives of the Association and any standards that the Board of Directors may require.” The American Association of Museums can publicly revoke an institution’s membership, which becomes very public very fast especially considering their huge meetings for all members twice a year. Any deaccession by a museum or gallery is watched by the American Association of Museums, and any hugely controversial deaccession by a museum or gallery can lead to a revoked membership, and public condemning by them as well. And with the amount of numbers on their side, you can bet that any bad deal in a deaccession will go from bad to worse. Although maintaining a membership with the American Association of Museums is extremely important for all museums or galleries, a few of them decide to not join in, and thus they can control their own collection with their own rules. What this means for artwork is that a museum or gallery that does not have a membership can sell their artwork without having to worry about a regulating body condemning their actions, thus making the artwork more vulnerable. But due to the networking and strength in numbers that the American Association of Museums provides, having a membership with them is far more recommended then going it alone. (Ibid, American Association of Museums [5])

The American Association of Museums Logo

The Association of Academic Museums and Galleries Logo

                The museums or galleries in the university setting often have a different governing body than the American Association of Museums, however many may join their ranks. A specific group has been created in regards to a governing body needed for the university museum or gallery. Called the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, the AAMG is a professional and educational organization which leads the governance of university museums and galleries. Similar to the Association of American Museums in many respects, in their mission statement, the AAMG states that their goal is to establish and assist their members in the best practices and activities to better achieve their educational goals. Their networks are strong, and have been on the forefront of defending issues regarding the university museum or gallery. Very similar to the American Association of Museums, the AAMG keeps a close watch on the deacquisition of artworks in the university setting, and can revoke a museum's membership if they feel the institution has acted unfairly, such as the case may be with the deacquisition process.[6]

            Let’s come back to a previous question of property ownership in regards to artwork in the university setting using examples from case studies regarding another university museum, the Rose Art museum in the Brandeis University in Massachusetts.  In early 2009, the university declared that it was planning to shut down its onsite museum, deaccession all of its artworks, and turn the building into educational facility that would better align with its “educational standards.” The museum contained significant works by Jasper Johns, Rene Magritte, Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, and Roy Lichtenstein; the collection valued in 2007 at roughly three hundred and fifty million dollars. The decision was made without consulting the museum staff or its board. Now here’s the question that needs to be answered: legally, what reasoning did the university give to sell off the artwork? According to the Brandeis University’s code of ethics, in a university setting, the facility was established as a gallery, which allowed the gallery board and its workers to have control over its artworks. But Brandeis University changed the status of its facility from gallery to museum, which enabled the university to disband the board, layoff all its employees, and gain control over the entire facility. Condemned by the American Association of Museums, the academic university, and the press, the facility is being transformed into educational center with an attached museum that will allegedly “better fit in” with the educational “standards” of the Brandeis University.[7]

            Financial reasons for the deaccession of artwork are usually the most common reasons paintings and sculptures are sold, but what happens when a artwork is illegally obtained in the first place? The documentary, “The Rape of Europa” documents this and many other issues facing artworks that were pilfered during WWII. In 1907, Gustav Klimt painted a portrait of and for Adele Bloch-Bauer, entitled Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. In her will, Bloch-Bauer stipulated that upon her and her husband’s death, the portrait would be donated to the Austrian State Gallery. She died in 1925 of meningitis, but upon the invasion of the Nazis into Austria in 1939, her husband was forced to flee to Switzerland, and the portrait was taken from the Bloch-Bauer and put into the private collection of Adolf Hitler. In his last will and testament, Bloch-Bauer’s husband bequeathed his nephews and nieces (including Maria Altmann) the executors of his estate.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Gustav Klimt, 1907, Oil, Silver and Gold on Canvas

             However, at the end of World War II, the portrait was found and, pertaining to bureaucratic needs, was handed over to the Austrian Gallery as to find the portraits owner. However, instead of seeking out the Bloch-Bauer family, the Austrian Gallery kept the piece and didn’t attempt to return it. One could ask, why did the Austrian Gallery decide to hold onto it instead of returning it? Because the painting was rumored to be lost in the middle of WWII, and its survival was nothing short of a miracle after being hidden in a cave. The painting, in addition, was commonly referred to as the Austrian equivalent of the Mona Lisa, and as such, losing the painting would have caused a drastic decrease in revenue for the Austrian Gallery.

            Although knowing about the painting’s whereabouts for several years, in 2004 Maria Altmann (Adele Bloch-Bauer’s husband's last living executor), had had enough of the Austrian Museum’s actions. When Altman challenged their actions in writings, enabled in part by a law recently passed allowing a American citizen to sue a foreign national country, California resident Altmann filed a suit for the return of the painting. Considering the complexities of this court case, the case was transferred all the way to the United States Supreme court. The Austrian Gallery challenged that Bloch-Bauer’s will stipulated that the painting was going to be sent to them anyway. Altmann challenged that it was the right of Bloch-Bauer’s executors to give the painting to the Austrian Gallery, not the gallery’s right to just take it without notifying the next of kin. The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Altmann, taking ownership of the painting, to which she sold it to the Neue Galerie in New York in 2006.[8]      

            A deaccession that hits closer to home is at Randolph College’s Maier Museum. From information gathered from a published newspaper article, ten university employees entered the museum at closing time and stated that they were there to take four of the museum’s most prominent works of art. Several of the visiting employees packed the pieces, which included a famous George Bellows painting, and removed them from the museum while museum employees were detained away from scene.[9]

             Many Randolph College board members, alumnae, and current students have criticized the university’s decision to sell the paintings (claiming the university did not have the legal right), saying the institution did not exhaust every other financial option, claiming the university moved precipitously in removing them from the Maier. The Lynchburg News & Advance, in a October, 2007 article, quoted Randolph alumna and advisory board member Nancy F. Walker: “The Board members who were in on this working group (deciding the fate of the paintings) didn’t seem to be interested in pursuing (alternative ideas)…” The Maier museum is endowed by the Maier family trust, but that trust is controlled and distributed by the college. The newspaper stated that the trust representatives were shocked that the trust would be abused in such a manner, saying it never occurred to them that the paintings would be sold.

            All these previous things being said, we can possibly ask, “What is the ideal museum or gallery”? Upon our discussion of the things that have a tendency to go wrong in the realm of deaccession, what list of ethics do museums and galleries have to compare themselves to (besides the scorn of the American Association of Museums and the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries)? For that, we turn to Europe, namely the Museums Association of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has a long, respectful past of honoring their artifacts, and in addition, making sure their museums (academic or not) are respected to their fullest extent. In their opinion, the museum has many duties to their works, and to their community. The first is that a museum is responsible for holding collections in trust for the benefit of society. Second, that a focus on public service is crucial for their existence, in which their survival is completely dependent on it. Third, that it is their job to encourage exploring collections for inspiration, learning, and enjoyment. Fourth, that their existence is contingent on consulting and involving communities, users, and supporters. Fifth, that they have the duty to acquire all their items honestly and responsibly. Sixth, that safeguarding the long term public interest in the collections is completely necessary. Seventh, that it is their responsibility to recognize the interests of all the people who made, used, owned, collected or gave items in the collections. Eighth, that it is duty as an institution to support the protection of natural and human environments. Ninth, that one of their goals as an institution is to research, share and interpret information related to collections, while reflecting diverse views. Tenth, that it it’s their responsibility to review their performance in order to innovate and improve their following.[10]

            Although this might seem as a fairly Utopian idea of how museums should work, could we not enforce the similar standards to our American museums and galleries? Not easily. Primarily because this list of ethics and standards set up by the British Museum Association is enforced by a government mandated body, whereas our ruling bodies for museums and galleries are not regulated by any governmental body. The only minor governing body that mandates any rule over the museums and galleries in the United States is through the Smithsonian Institution, which has only nineteen official museums, and only builds up its affiliates by creating them from within their institution. But until the governing bodies of the United States realizes the role that our museums and galleries play in our overall history, many museums and galleries will continue to face challenges, not just considering the realm of deaccession. [11](Ibid, Trevelyan [10])

            As we have seen so far, many times museums ride a slippery slope in the decision to deaccession an artwork. But a determining factor in each of these case studies is that the museum in question is often determined by people who often blur the lines between the livelihood of the artwork, and the livelihood of the institution as a name. The Brandeis’s Rose Art Museum could have changed their collection around a little to better suit the mission of the educational facility and the University itself. Maria Altman sued for the return of her family’s painting because the Austrian Museum didn’t care about the proper lines of ownership of the painting, instead only caring about the revenue their “Mona Lisa” was bringing in. And finally Randolph College, who sold sixty percent of the Maier Museum’s market value, claiming their actions were the only option to keep their mission alive. But with each of these institutions, and the very nature of deaccession is still a serious problem in the art world, and threats from the AAM, the AAMG, and public backlash can only go so far. If we are truly to protect our cultural heritage, perhaps different steps need to be taken to prevent mistreatment in deaccession from happening.

[1] Caroline Punches. “Criteria for Acquisition and De-Acquisition of Art Works: San José State University Library." November 29, 2004. http://library.sjsu.edu/policies-procedures/criteria-acquisition-de-acquisition-art-works (accessed March 1, 2011).

[2] Sam Morabito, "UCLA Procedure 742.2: De-acquisition of Works of Art by Sale or Exchange."  July 1, 1998. http://www.adminpolicies.ucla.edu/pdf/742-2.pdf (accessed March 1, 2011).


[3] Rhonda Walker. "Sale of Museum Artifacts for Operational Costs." 01 April 2011. Online Posting to listserv.shu.edu. Web, 3 Apr 2011.


[4] Steve Miller. "Sale of Museum Artifacts for Operational Costs." 01 April 2011. Online Posting to listserv.shu.edu. Web, 3 Apr 2011.


[5] "American Association of Museums." http://www.aam-us.org/ (accessed March 3, 2011).

[6] "Association of Academic Museums and Galleries." 2010. http://www.aamg-us.org/mission_statement.php (accessed April 01, 2011).

[7] Jason Edward Kaufman, “Brandeis’s rose museum to become educational facility”, Museums of the Americas, copyright The Art Newspaper, 1/03/2009


[8] Richard Berge, Dir. Rape of Europa. Dir. Richard Berge." Perf. Joan, Allen. 2006, Film.


[9] Christa Desrets. “Maier Museum Art Controversy Boils”, (2007), http://www2.newsadvance.com/news/2007/oct/04/maier_museum_art_controversy_boils-ar-228807/. (accessed March 5, 2011).


[10] Trevelyan, Vanessa. "Code of Ethics for Museum Association ." 2007. http://www.museumsassociation.org/publications/code-of-ethics (accessed May 5th, 2011).


[11] "Smithsonian Institution." http://www.si.edu/ (accessed May, 10th, 2011).