Museums in New Jersey could soon be able to get rid of stuff in their basements with no known owner. A bill pending in the Legislature would allow a museum to assume ownership of an object given on loan, but whose lender can no longer be found. It would allow museums to sell those orphaned objects.
When a museum agrees to accept an object on loan – a seascape painting, for example–it is entrusted to properly store and maintain that painting until the lender asks for its return.
If the lender never asks for it back, the museum is ethically bound to preserve it perpetuity. That seascape can become an albatross.
“A museum would take an object as a courtesy to someone when it didn’t fit with mission,” said Elizabeth Romanaux, president of the New Jersey Association of Museums. “When a museum tries to give it back, they find they can’t do it because they are honor-bound to hang onto it until they can find the rightful owner. If you can’t find the rightful owner, you’re stuck.”
The museum would not be allowed to do anything with the object. Without permission from the absent owner, the object could not be sold, exhibited, catalogued, or even cleaned.
The pending bill would give the institution ownership of the object after appropriate efforts were made to track down the original owner. The bill has the backing of most New Jersey museums.
There is no such law in Pennsylvania. The CEO of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, David Brigham, says museums today run much tighter ships than they did a century ago.
“When they were initially founded 100 years ago, it seemed like they had wide-open spaces, and accepting long-term loans was not a daunting idea,” said Brigham, who does not know of any “orphaned” object in the PAFA holdings. “But now we’re 206 years into our history, and we’re very careful about what we bring in. We’re much more intentional about what we expect to have.”
Brigham says most museums nowadays make efforts to stay in touch with the lender annually, so objects don’t become orphans. The law in New Jersey would mostly apply to objects that were accepted 50 or 100 years ago.