British Museums Warned About Selling Off Works

Museums in Northampton in the UK, lost accreditation after the city council sold this ancient Egyptian statue for $24 million. Photo: Courtesy Northampton Council website.

British museums that sell off artworks to raise money are facing tougher sanctions from UK oversight associations including the Museums Association (MA) and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), The Independent recently reported.

According to the study, the MA is planning to tighten rules surrounding sales in hopes of avoiding controversial sell-offs from cash-strapped institutions. The MA is also in talks with the HLF about establishing a united front to counter institutions selling objects for financial gain.

Among the recent sales that sparked reaction were the Northampton Borough Council’s decision to sell an ancient Egyptian statute of Sekhemka for $24.6 million (£15.8 million) this past July. According to the report, the sale spurred the MA to revoke accredited status for Northampton Museums, despite their status as a founding member of the organization more than a century ago. In the previous year, Croyden council sold 17 Chinese ceramics from the Riesco Gallery for $12.5 million (£8.2 million)  despite pressure from the local community, as well as the MA, which later withdrew accreditation.

The report quotes MA director Sharon Heal, who said of Northampton: “They didn’t follow due process and it’s a hugely significant piece…It’s a shame that the people at the very top of Northampton council didn’t think twice about this.”

An annual survey conducted by the MA found that funding cuts have forced one in 10 museums to consider selling off works. Further, the survey found that 52 percent of museums sustained declines in income last year, the largest number since 2011.

The MA is reportedly not opposed to sales if, as Heal says, they act in an ethical way with respect to the public, the collection, and the museum. ” For example, the Watts Gallery in Surrey sought advice before selling paintings and reinvesting the money.

Under guidelines followed by American museums, under the auspices of the AAMD (the Association of Art Museum Directors), deacessions of works are permitted only when the funds raised are put towards other acquisitions.

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