From Private Hands to Public Walls
Gallery & Museum Acquisitions from the Secondary Art Market

An image of the National Gallery, London from the outside. It shows the iconic building, seen from Trafalgar Square on a bright and sunny day. Many people stand on the steps.Image (CC) / The National Gallery, London 2014
Louis Denizet

Louis Denizet, Head of Acquisitions[email protected]

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When most people think of a museum’s collection, they often think of works that have been donated or lent to the institution by wealthy individuals. However, in recent years, museums and galleries have increasingly sought to purchase artwork in the secondary market to avoid it from falling into private hands that may not wish to display these in public. 

The secondary art market, a vibrant nexus of art dealers, collectors, and auction houses has long played a pivotal role in the cultural ecosystem. Unlike the primary market, where artworks are sold for the first time directly by artists or their representative galleries, the secondary market involves the resale of artworks, often marking a significant shift in their value and cultural significance. This dynamic marketplace enables these cultural institutions to diversify and enhance their collections, although the acquisition process involves careful selection, rigorous authentication, valuation and negotiation – posing a new set of questions and concerns for the administrators of these institutions.

The Journey of Artworks From Private Collections to Museums

The journey of artworks from private collections to museum walls is one through the fascinating worlds of personal passion, cultural heritage, market dynamics and public curation and display. It often begins with collectors, enthusiasts and connoisseurs who acquire art for personal pleasure, investment or a mix of both. A piece of art may reside within a private collection for years, decades or even generations, appreciating in both monetary and historical value over time.

Private collections can be incredibly diverse, encompassing everything from Old Masters and Modernists to cutting-edge contemporary works. These artworks often hold immense cultural value and are ideally meticulously cared for and documented by their owners, who may eventually wish to monetise their investment or redistribute their assets. The secondary market is a crucial facilitator in the transition of art from private hands to public walls, as artworks on this market are typically appraised and authenticated by experts. In an auction house setting, high-profile auctions can attract significant attention, often resulting in competitive bidding that can dramatically inflate the price of a piece. Art dealers, on the other hand, often operate more discreetly, building personal relationships with collectors and institutions alike. Their deep knowledge of market trends can play a vital role in matching artworks with potential new owners.

Museum curators and acquisition committees represent the final stage of this journey. These professionals and specialist teams have the critical task of deciding which artworks to acquire for their institutions – a decision guided by the museum’s mission, any potential gaps in their collections, the artwork's cultural or historical significance and, of course, budget considerations. Acquisitions can be made through purchases, often supported by museum endowments or donations, or through direct donations or bequests from collectors.

The Impact of Donations and Bequests on Museum Collections

Donations and bequests have long played an essential role in shaping museum collections, often leading to some of the most significant and transformative acquisitions. These generous acts from private collectors or philanthropists can profoundly enrich a museum's holdings, provide public access to extraordinary works of art, and leave a lasting legacy for the benefactors. Some collectors choose to donate artworks during their lifetimes, others bequeath entire collections in their wills, while some establish foundations to manage their collections posthumously.

A prime example of the impact of donations on museum collections is the Annenberg Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where numerous Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces, including works by Monet, Renoir, and Seurat were donated. Similarly, the National Gallery in London was founded largely due to the banker and collector John Julius Angerstein's bequest in 1826, which formed the core of the museum's collection, including works by Raphael, Titian, and Rembrandt. Sometimes, donations come with stipulations that can shape the entire trajectory and ethos of a museum. For example, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia was established in 1922 to house Albert C. Barnes’ substantial collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings. However, he stipulated that the collection could never be loaned, sold or rearranged, creating a unique and fixed display that remains in place today.

In addition to enriching a museum's collection, donations and bequests can also strengthen a museum's financial stability. Major gifts can come with endowments intended to fund future acquisitions or care for the donated works. This type of financial backing can empower museums to plan ahead and make significant acquisitions they might not otherwise afford. These acts of philanthropy not only enrich the cultural landscape but also foster public engagement with art, create educational opportunities, and ensure the preservation of artistic heritage for future generations.

The Financial Aspect: Funding Museum Acquisitions

The financial aspect of museum acquisitions is a complex and multifaceted challenge, requiring a delicate balance between growth expectations, resource management and public responsibility. Museums operate in a market where prices for sought-after pieces can reach astronomical levels, and they must compete not only with other cultural institutions but also with private collectors and investors.

Endowments form one of the main financial sources for many museums. These are funds or property donated to museums with the stipulation that it is invested to produce ongoing income for a specific purpose, often the acquisition of new works. Grants from government bodies, foundations or trusts are another vital source of acquisition funding. These can be general grants available to all qualifying institutions or can be specifically tied to particular types of acquisitions, such as works by underrepresented artists or culturally significant artefacts.

The National Lottery Heritage Fund

In the UK, a significant source of funding for public museums to acquire artworks on the secondary market is the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It is a fund established in 1994, which aims to distribute a portion of the proceeds from the National Lottery to projects involving the country's heritage. Its primary mission is to transform and sustain the UK’s heritage through innovative investment in projects with a lasting impact on people and places. These can range from small grants for local community projects to large-scale, multi-million pound grants for major initiatives, and the funding can be used for various aspects of a project, including research, conservation, restoration, education and public engagement activities.

The National Lottery Heritage Fund has played a role in over 51,000 heritage projects, having raised more than £8.8 billion since its inception. Notable projects that have received funding include the restoration of historic buildings, the creation and improvement of nature reserves, the digitisation of archival materials and the enhancement of museum collections and exhibitions.

Art Fund

Art Fund is a national charity in the United Kingdom that supports museums and galleries, helping them to buy and display great works of art for everyone's enjoyment. Established in 1903, it has contributed towards the purchase of thousands of items for museum collections across the UK. Its most well-known program is probably its funding of new acquisitions. Over the years, it has provided millions of pounds in grants to help UK museums and galleries acquire great works of art, ranging from Old Master paintings and important historical artefacts to contemporary installations and digital art. Examples include Self-Portrait As Saint Catherine Of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi, which was acquired by the National Gallery in 2018, and The Blue Rigi, Sunrise by J.M.W. Turner, acquired by the Tate in 2007.

In addition to funding acquisitions, Art Fund also provides grants to support training and professional development opportunities for curators, helps museums to share their collections with wider audiences by supporting tours and exhibitions, and champions innovative projects that find new ways to engage the public with art.

Even with these various sources of funding, museums often face significant financial challenges in the secondary art market. The prices for highly coveted artworks can far exceed a museum's budget, especially when they are competing against wealthy private collectors. Moreover, market values can fluctuate wildly based on trends, speculative buying and the prestige associated with certain artists, further complicating the acquisition process. Museums must also consider the costs of transportation, insurance, conservation, storage and display of these artworks. In the case of international acquisitions, there may also be legal fees and import duties to consider. Some museums may use deaccessioning, or selling off parts of a collection to fund new acquisitions, which raises financial and ethical considerations, with many arguing this should only be a last resort.

Despite these challenges, museums continue to navigate the secondary art market, leveraging their resources, reputation and public mission to enrich their collections and provide access to important works of art. This often requires creativity and collaboration, such as partnering with other institutions for joint purchases or pursuing long-term loan agreements instead of outright acquisitions.

Navigating Legal and Ethical Issues in Museum Acquisitions

Acquiring new artworks is a key part of a museum's mission, but it also involves navigating a complex landscape of legal and ethical issues. From provenance research to repatriation claims, museums must ensure they act responsibly, transparently and in line with both the law and best practice guidelines.

One of the most significant challenges in museum acquisitions is provenance research, the process of tracing an artwork's ownership history. This is crucial for establishing the legality of the acquisition and for ensuring that the work was not looted or stolen – provenance research is especially important for artworks from periods of upheaval, such as during the Nazi era, when many pieces were seized from their owners. If the provenance research reveals gaps, it raises legal and ethical questions about whether the museum should proceed with the acquisition.

Similar to provenance research are repatriation claims made by nations or groups seeking the return of cultural artefacts taken from them, often during colonial times or under duress. Many museums are facing increasing pressure to respond to these claims, with the British Museum being an infamous example. The repatriation process often involves complex legal and ethical considerations, including whether to return items, how to manage the process, and how to engage with the communities involved. Benin Bronzes have been increasingly repatriated in recent years.

Cultural and Ethical Considerations

The ethical dimensions of acquisitions extend beyond just the legality of the transaction. Museums are increasingly being called upon to consider the broader implications of their acquisitions, such as their role in perpetuating the marginalisation of certain artists or cultures or in contributing to unsustainable practices in the art market. Many museums have developed detailed acquisition policies that outline how they will approach these challenges, often including commitments to thorough provenance research, to engaging openly and transparently with repatriation claims and to considering the broader ethical implications of acquisitions.

Museums’ close association with controversial patrons and donors has also been questioned. For instance, many institutions have been under pressure to cut ties with the Sackler family, known for its ownership of Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin. They have been significant donors to cultural and educational institutions worldwide for decades, and their philanthropy has resulted in numerous buildings, wings, and named professorships in institutions ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Louvre and the University of Oxford. Several major institutions, such as the Tate Modern in and the Guggenheim Museum, have announced they will no longer accept donations from the Sackler family. The Louvre even went as far as removing the Sackler name from its walls, the first major museum to do so, while others followed. These developments have spurred a broader debate in the museum sector about the ethics of donations and the responsibilities of cultural institutions to scrutinise the sources of philanthropic gifts. While most agree that cultural institutions need funding to operate and fulfil their mission, they also acknowledge that accepting funds from donors linked to controversial or harmful activities can damage a museum's reputation and undermine its ethical stance.

The Complexity of Museum Acquisitions

The journey of artworks from private collections to museum walls involves a diverse set of actors and considerations, with significant implications for public access to art and the preservation of cultural heritage. As society's understanding and expectations evolve, so too do the practices of museums, as they strive to balance financial realities, legal obligations and ethical commitments. From the role of major donors like the Sackler family to the implications of repatriation claims and receiving funding, the landscape of museum acquisitions is dynamic and multifaceted. Museums need to strike a balance between the desire to expand their collections and adequately considering the sources of that funding.

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