Why museums often shy from taking donated works

Private art collectors in the United States possess close to 100,000 ancient Greek, Roman and related Classical objects. And yet most American museums, if offered those items as gifts, would turn them down.


This Athenian Red-figure Volute Krater was acquired by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1983, but later found likely to have been illegally excavated. The MIA has since returned the item to the Italian government, via Homeland Security.

Image courtesy the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

This conundrum was the subject of a recent piece in the New York Times, which included an interview with a Twin Cities collector.

In the three decades since David Dewey of Minneapolis began collecting Chinese antiquities he has donated dozens to favored museums, enriching the Institute of Arts in his hometown as well as Middlebury College in Vermont, where he studied Mandarin.

But his giving days are largely over, he said, pre-empted by guidelines that most museums now follow on what objects they can accept.

“They just won’t take them — can’t take them,” Mr. Dewey said.

…Mr. Dewey said in an interview that he contemplated giving the Minneapolis museum an eighth-century ceramic horse from the Tang dynasty that he had bought from a Hong Kong dealer 20 years ago. But he decided not to do it because even with the paperwork from the sale, he said, he knew he would run up against the museum directors’ guidelines. “Everybody just got scared,” he said of the museum world.

Here at MPR we’ve reported on the particular issues surrounding provenance, and how the Minneapolis Institute of Arts works to ensure it’s not collecting items that were smuggled out of their original homes. And how sometimes it’s been obliged to to return items that have been in its collection for years.

Interested in learning more? Check out these stories here and here.

Comments are closed.