The record price of just under £16m obtained by Northampton BC for its 4,000-year-old Egyptian limestone statue highlights the increasing pressure being placed on local authorities’ museum and heritage services.
Over recent years the size of museum collections in England and Wales has increased exponentially and currently totals about 200 million items, of which up to 95% of some collections are in storage and may never have been seen by the public.
However, with growing public interest in our heritage and a more demanding audience, local authorities are finding it difficult to cater for this market in times of austerity and in light of the discretionary nature of the service.
The sale of an artefact which is outside the authority’s core collection is an opportunity to improve the museum buildings and to acquire new items.
Authorities will need to consider a number of issues.
Some artefacts will have been in the local authority’s hands for many years. They will need to establish if they are “absolute” owners, whether there were conditions attached by the donor or if the items were loaned with a range of other conditions. Clear records of donations or acquisitions are a vital prerequisite. In addition, if the artefact was purchased with external grant funding, such assistance may have to be re-paid.
Any authority wishing to sell an artefact may wish to take into account the views of Arts Council England and its museum accreditation. Such loss could adversely affect both access to future public sector grants and involve possible clawback of recent grants, as well as creating difficulties for any museum wishing to obtain government indemnity insurance for any paintings on loan to and from it.
Museums Association Code of Ethics
This code governs aspects of disposals from museum collections and requires, in particular, confirmation that the net proceeds of sale are ringfenced solely and directly for the sustainability, use and development of the remainder of the museum’s collection.
UK Export Licensing
A remaining issue for a local authority relates to the requirement for an export licence if the artefact is sold outside the UK, and there are different conditions depending on whether the purchaser is resident within or outside the EU.
The pressure on local authority museum collections will continue. In much the same way as private collectors are able to dispose of items to reinvest in their own collections, local authorities should have the flexibility to do likewise.
Public interest in our heritage is fickle, and museums need to adjust both their disposal and acquisitions policies, as well as significantly improving interpretation of their collections.
However, any moves along these lines do require less red tape from both Arts Council England and the Museums Association.
Simon Randall, consultant, local government team, Winckworth Sherwood LLP