Flogging off the family silver is an ancient art

    Few words trigger as much anger and consternation in cultural circles as “deaccessioning”. It’s an attempt to sound technical and managerial about an activity that stirs deep emotions. No one wants to call it what it is — “flogging off the family silver”. But, whatever words you use, it has always gone on. And with economies looking set to plunge rather than soar when we crawl our way out of the current doo-doo, we may need to get used to doing it more than we want to.

    Deaccessioning is illegal if attempted in the wrong manner, but not if done correctly. Written into the statute books of most cultural institutions are the correct steps that need to be taken if they have to sell something.

    In America — the front line when it comes to developments in museum behaviour — deaccessioning is the rule rather than the exception. All the big American museums are constantly selling stuff. With zero money coming in from the government, they have little option. But while deaccessioning can be legal according to the letter of the law, morally and emotionally it is nearly always problematic.

    In particular, there is the issue of the terms under which the object was given to the cultural institution in the first place.

    Most people who leave something to a museum are not doing it so that their gift can eventually be sold. They are doing it because they want to be remembered.

    That was certainly the case with the son of the Marquess of Northampton when he donated his ancient Egyptian statue of the scribe Sekhemka to Northampton Museum in the 1870s. No one imagined then that nearly a century and a half later the little scribe would fetch £15.8m at Christie’s in London.

    Tellingly, the present Marquess of Northampton was involved in the post-sale divvy-up and rewarded with more than £6m. When it comes to “flogging off the family silver”, the great and the good of Britain have always been streets ahead of our councils and museums.