Friday, 2 June 2017

"Legal Title Law Reforms for Museum Property and Financially Motivated Sales", Professor Janet Ulph, School of Law, University of Leicester

UKRG Event: “Kanwe, Acquirem & Howe LLP!”: Museums, acquisitions and the Law
National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, Friday 21st April 2017

Talk: Legal Title Law Reforms for Museum Property and Financially Motivated Sales
Professor Janet Ulph, School of Law, University of Leicester

Janet has been working with DCMS and the Scottish Government on reforms that could make it easier to establish Legal Title for objects in museum collections. “Orphan” objects with little to no documentation are protected under the Interference with Goods Act 1977. There are legal and ethical risks to museums or galleries if they dispose of objects under Possessory Title.


The Prescription and Title to Moveable Property (Scotland) Bill would allow museums to gain Legal Title if the original owner or successor has not made a claim in a 50 year period and cannot be contacted. This period is important as it complies with the Human Rights Act and does not interfere with an individual’s right to their property or possessions. There is strong support for this bill and it may be amended to include clauses for restitution claims, from Holocaust survivors for example.

There is similar consideration for reform in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the Cultural Collections Bill. A 30 year period may be preferable as it is possible that long-serving members of staff would have some memory of the arrival of the objects or possible contacts.

Janet presented examples of financially motivated disposals to illustrate some of the legal and ethical issues. One case study concerned the sale of Henry Moore’s Draped Seated Woman by Tower Hamlets. Purchased by London County Council in 1962, the land the statue was on passed to Greater London Council, then Bromley Council, before finally being sold to Tower Hamlets. Tower Hamlets lent the sculpture to Yorkshire Sculpture Park from 1997 and made the decision to sell in 2012.  Tower Hamlets had not had Legal Title to Draped Seated Woman; that had remained with Bromley Council as the sculpture was not a permanent fixture on the land. The Judge ruled that Legal Title rested with Tower Hamlets after committing a tort of conversion by lending to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Bromley Council had not registered any objections or claims in the six years following the loan, as required under the Limitation Act 1980, and while the sale was not necessarily ethical, it remained legal.


Janet also presented a case study of the attempted sale by Kirklees Council of Francis Bacon’s Figure Study II (valued at £60 million). The original conditions of the acquisition prevented the council from selling; as a gift from the Contemporary Art Society, any attempts at disposal would result in the Council losing ownership.

The MA Code of Ethics does not prohibit disposals entirely, but there are restrictions. The Royal Academy was permitted to sell a Leonardo da Vinci cartoon (The Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist and St Anne) to the National Gallery in 1962 as this kept the work in the public domain and continued to serve long-term public interest. The disposal of the Sekhemka statue by Northampton council in 2014 was not considered to be ethical as it was financially motivated and sold to a private individual outside the UK; Northampton Museum lost its Accredited status in this instance.


Determining Legal and Possessory Title can be more easily resolved if there is supporting documentation. The Prescription and Title to Moveable Property Bill and the Cultural Collections Bill should simplify the process whereby museums and galleries can gain Legal Title over those objects.



Amy Brown, Assistant Registrar, Science Museum

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Amy,
    Interesting problems and here's another example. .
    A prize exhibit of our little town museum in Totnes was an occulting light mechanism designed according to Charles Babbage's plans. Babbage went to school in the town.

    Unfortunately the custodian (now sadly passed on) who accepted the piece failed to complete the accession correctly. So a descendent of the original donor then recovered it (at some cost to the museum) and offered it to your Science Museum where it was thought that it might be appreciated by more people.

    If you still have it I bet that it's still somewhere in your basements.

    Meanwhile we still have a number of unattributed pieces, many probably accepted by that well intentioned custodian..

    All the best to both and all.. James B

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