A frequent question I receive when helping to settle estates, is whether or not to donate items to a museum. This is especially true when the person whose estate we’re taking care of is or was an avid art collector.
The answer to this question is deeply personal and depends on many factors.
First and foremost, because museums have limited storage space, they must be selective about which donations they will accept.
If they already have similar items in their collection, have a duplicate item, the item doesn’t fit in with the rest of their collection or if the condition of the item doesn’t meet their standards, the museum is likely to turn down your donation.
If a museum does agree to take the asset you would like to donate, it’s important to know that the items you donate to a museum won’t be on display forever. In fact, they might not be on display at all.
Most museums are only able to display a fraction of their collection. For instance, the Smithsonian reports about 1% of its collection is on display at any one time.
Items not on display can be stored to include in later exhibits or may be used by scholars for research purposes.
Because storage can be costly for museums, many museums may deaccession assets from their collection after they’ve had them for a certain period of time. When this happens, the museum typically sends the items to an auction house to be sold.
We’ve handled sales of assets from several museums over the years. Since the donor has no longer has legal ownership of the assets given to a museum, the museum can sell the items for a profit to benefit the museum.
The main thing to consider when deciding whether to donate items to a museum is whether the assets will be included in an active collection that is on display or whether they will be sold for profit to the museum.
If your goal is to provide support to a beloved museum or organization by giving them a valuable asset they can sell, donating makes the most sense. If, however, your goal is to create a legacy or share the artwork or item with others, you should get more information about how the asset will be used.
Ask yourself, if the items will be sold by the museum, would you rather give the assets to your heirs so your legacy can be passed on that way? Or would you rather the items be sold for a profit for yourself or your heirs?
If you’re not sure what to do, a certified appraiser can estimate the value of the assets you are considering donating. This knowledge can help you have an informed conversation with your heirs, so you can decide how to proceed.
Erik Hoyer owns EJ’s Auction & Appraisal in Glendale. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.ejsauction.com or 623-878-2003.