Valuing Museum Collections: Mission Impossible

Valuing Museum Collections: Mission Impossible

In a plotline usually reserved for Hollywood heist films, thieves broke into Dresden Palace’s Green Vault in November stealing jewellery of ‘immeasurable worth’.  The robbery saw three sets of 18th century jewellery stolen from the collection in what the media are naming the largest art theft in history, estimating the value of items stolen at €1 billion.

However this value is misleading given that the artefacts, despite being priceless, would be near impossible to sell on the market. Marion Ackermann, Director of Dresden’s State Art Collection, has said “We cannot give value because it is impossible to sell.” However, one option would be to melt down the jewellery and sell the constituent parts for resale, but this would lower the value considerably given that much of the value of the items is gleaned from its cultural and historic significance, and the items are truly irreplaceable.

This theft brings to light a key concept within the museum sector, how can we quantify the value of seemingly priceless artefacts? And how can a museum protect itself against the risk of theft or other damage, given that insurance relies on accurate valuation?

The act of valuing a museum collection involves making informed statements about an object’s value in order to inform the way in which we preserve and use historic object’s. The purpose of which is to understand the collection, its insurance value for protection against theft and damage, and its significance to the museum and wider cultural importance. The difficulty here is that many items may have little or no market value but deep cultural significance, and the two concepts may be deeply intertwined making true valuation difficult. There is also often a discrepancy between the value of items that is reflected in the museum’s balance sheet and that which is reflected in its insurance value.

When considering insurance for a collection it is important for museums to prioritise areas of risk. Many museums choose to insure only key pieces in their collection that are deemed of greatest cultural significance, whilst others insure their collection as a global-sum with a ‘first-loss ceiling.’ We are also well served in the UK by the Government Indemnity Scheme which: “Provides cost free indemnity cover to borrowing institutions for loss or damage to art or cultural items on long or short loan.”

A second consideration is that valuation can garner public support for collections. For many, the public availability and educational opportunity presented through museums adds to the value of the collection. The idea too that a public collection is of high worth could contribute to greater interest and a greater sense of perceived value from museum goers.

The danger here, however, is that revealing the value of items in a collection can create a false impression of its true worth and lead the public to believe that monetary value is the primary way to value history and culture. It can also demean the value of other items in the collection creating a false sense of hierarchy in what is considered worthy of attention and impact on how the collection is interpreted.  Remember, museums are not salesrooms, items are not for sale. They are there for the educational and cultural benefit of all and although monetary value is one indicator of worth, it is not the primary way in which we should present the value of a museum collection to the public.

Revealing the value of a collection item can also make artefacts more attractive to theft. The idea that the jewellery stolen in Dresden last month is worth €1 billion is surely a driver in the thieves’ desire to steal those particular items. The irony here is that in order to protect the museum from losses due to theft, it must provide valuations of the collection.

Valuation can further pose problems when a museum is addressing a deficit of funding issue. By valuing a collection it can suggest that items can be sold off to cover deficits, once again presenting a false idea of the value of museum artefacts.Disposing of museum items is complex issue, however there is a way to dispose of museum items ethically, even when the sale is financially motivated. There is plenty of helpful information on this on the Museums Association website, including this disposal toolkit.

So how do we remedy these issues and make sound, rational valuations of items for insurance purposes, as well as communicating to the public the value of a collection without misleading or overstating the importance of financial worth? It is a difficult task and one that museums must undertake in good faith in order to protect the countless invaluable artefacts that they house. There are several step by step guides available for valuing collections, from Share Museums East here and the Collections Trust here.

What do you think? What advice would you give in valuing your museum collection? And what other issues do you face in collection valuation? Tweet us @Artsfundraising