Selling museum objects - is it ever right?

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

Done right, selling museum pieces can work – but probably not with Michelangelos.

By Alex Herman, Assistant Director of the Institute of Art and Law.

Is the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) going to sell its Michelangelo? It seems a preposterous proposition, but these are rather preposterous times. The idea, apparently floated by a handful of Royal Academicians, came as a response to the dire economic forecast at the institution, which quickly needs to make up an £8m shortfall and has indicated that it may be forced to let 150 staff members go. What better lifeboat than the Taddei Tondo (see left), an oft-overlooked roundel of marble some say could fetch £100m or more?

Welcome to the slippery slope of deaccessioning. This is an area of grave concern for many in the museums sector. Museums were established for the purpose of maintaining collections for the benefit of the public and it is felt that attempts to chip away at collections are tantamount to a surrender of their very raison d’être.

There are of course rules in place to ensure museum boards do not sell the family jewels. These rules sometimes find their source in legislation, like in the different statutes governing UK national museums. For the RA, which is not a state institution but an independent charity, the more applicable source is charity law. And the core requirement of charity law is that any board, like the council governing the RA, acts in the best interests of the institution and of the public, which usually means keeping the collection intact.


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