STATEMENT CONCERNING THE DEACCESSION OF WORKS OF ART
Adopted by the CAA Board of Directors on November 3, 1973; reaffirmed on June 17, 1991; revised on October 27, 2013; revised October 15, 2023.
A “deaccession” of a work of art is defined as the permanent physical removal of a work from a museum or other institution or entity that had formally accessioned said work.
“Disposal” is understood as the transfer of its ownership by sale, exchange, donation, or in the case of works that have been forged or irreparably damaged, destruction.
A “public trust” is understood to be a museum, educational institution, or other entity that was established as a nonprofit, tax-exempt entity and, consistent with that status, is obligated to serve the public interest. Some permanent collections, such as university or municipal museums, may be in the possession of entities that reside within a parent organization that is considered a public trust. With reference to works of art, CAA interprets the public’s interest to include the expectation that the trustees or directors and professional staff of public trusts will preserve and make available for study such works in perpetuity.
Best Practice Recommendations
A public trust’s collections may be strengthened by the deaccession of previously accessioned works of art. The deaccession of such works must be guided by the following policies:
Deaccessions may only be made after the establishment of a comprehensive collecting plan. Deaccessions must be justified by showing why such works are not relevant to the collection development plan, and they should ideally result from systematic assessments of entire collections.
Proposals for artworks to be considered for deaccession must be initiated by curatorial staff and justified according to deaccession guidelines listed in the collections management policy. Proposed deaccessions must then be approved by the museum director, and, if applicable, the collections committee. Final approval of proposals for deaccession must be approved by the Board of Trustees of the institution.
Deaccessions should be free of conflicts of interest and, consequently, should never be prompted by art market fluctuations or expressions of interest from institutional or individual collectors, nor should anyone on an institution’s staff or Board purchase or profit from sale of artwork deaccessioned by its institution. When the intent of the donor of a work identified for deaccession, or the intent of the donor of an acquisition fund with which a work identified for deaccession was purchased, is unclear or undocumented, the donor, the donor’s near relatives, or heirs should—if possible—be consulted about the deaccession. In instances when a deaccession is approved, and the deaccession yields income, the donor, near relatives, or heirs should be notified of the income; this income should be used to fund future acquisitions or direct care of collections, as defined by the institution.
Deaccessions must conform to any legal restrictions that have been placed on the gift and accepted by the museum.
Planned deaccessions must be publicized in appropriate local and/or regional media outlets and announced to local and/or regional peer public trusts in order to give the latter an opportunity to acquire the work(s) in question so they may be retained in that locality or region. Although an institution should exercise its fiduciary duty, it is appropriate to consider means of placing deaccessioned artwork in other public institutions through exchange or sale.
If a work is to be deaccessioned for the purposes of direct sale, sale by auction, or by exchange with another entity, the estimated value of the work should be determined prior to the ensuing transaction by a qualified third-party appraiser, i.e., an appraiser not affiliated with any of the entities participating in the sale, auction, or exchange.
All preparations for and transactions associated with deaccessions must be fully documented and accessible for public scrutiny to prevent the occurrence of, or appearance of, conflicts of interest among any officials or others associated with the deaccession.
Deaccessions may include disposal via the following means: sale to, exchange with, or donation to another public trust, repatriation, physical destruction, return to the donor, or any combination thereof. If a work is sold, the resulting income should be held in a deaccessions endowment or expendable fund account that can be tracked separately from other acquisitions funds. The proceeds from the sale of deaccessioned artwork, including earnings and appreciation, may only be used for acquisition of artworks or for direct care of collections, as defined by the institution’s staff and approved by the Board of Trustees; it may not be used to support costs such as operating expenses or building funds of the public trust. In the case of university and college museums, proceeds from deaccessions may not be used to fund operations, expenses, or investments of the museum or its parent institution.
After a deaccession is completed, it should be announced on the website and in any other appropriate publication of the public trust deaccessioning the work.
After a public trust deaccessions a work, it continues to remain responsible for preserving information collected in relation to the work—including information about its provenance, accession, display, publication, loan, preservation, and disposition—for future scholarly research. A record of this information should remain in collection databases and archives, and this information should be made available for qualified scholars upon request.
The governing body of a public trust, i.e., its board of directors or trustees, is ultimately responsible for deaccessions from collections that it oversees. That body may delegate to members of the organization’s professional staff the authority to deaccession works. However, each person participating in deaccession decisions, regardless of her or his position within an organization’s governance or management structure, is responsible for assuring that deaccessions are conducted in accordance with these policies.
The president and executive director of CAA, upon notification of a potential or alleged violation of these policies, are empowered to inquire into the matter and furnish to the appropriate officials of the public trust CAA’s policies on deaccessions. If a public trust is found to be in violation of these policies, CAA’s president and executive director may recommend that CAA’s Board of Directors publicly issue a letter to the public trust.
The determination of whether or not a given work of art should be deaccessioned may require consultations with outside experts or others, including art historians, museum professionals, conservators, art dealers, or artists (in the case of works by living artists). In each instance, and especially if dealers, galleries, auction houses, or any other entity that is a business concerned with purchasing and selling art, are consulted, such consultations should be documented so as to avoid the occurrence of, or appearance of, conflicts of interest.
Deaccessions of works by living artists should be avoided, if possible. Deaccessions of works of art by artists whose heirs or estate trustees retain interests in such works may require special care in this context. Public trusts should make every reasonable effort to contact the artist, heirs, or estate trustees early in any discussion of possible deaccessions. In countries or states where there are laws addressing artists’ rights concerning their works or royalties associated with such works, public trusts must make every effort to comply with those laws.
Useful resources include:
Museum Registration Methods, 6th edition, Rebecca A. Buck and Jean Allman Gilmore, eds. (Washington, DC: American Association of Museums Press, 2010)
These guidelines were first revised by Jeffrey Abt, Wayne State University, with the advice and approval of the 2013 Museum Committee. These guidelines were revisited and revised in 2023 by Lisa Strong, Georgetown University, and by Museum Committee Members Monica Andrews (chair), Harvard University; Samantha Hull, de Saisset Museum; Margaret Pezalla-Granlund, the College of New Jersey; and Roma Madan Soni, Anant National University.