Museums and the Dilemmas of Deaccessioning

Faculty Author Type

Emeritus Faculty [Robert K. Paterson]

Published In

Transnational Dispute Management

Document Type


Publication Date



Museums; Collections; Deaccessioning; International law


One of the most controversial aspects of museum governance has been the practice of deaccessioning, whereby museums sell or otherwise part with possession of objects forming part of their collections. Though such transfers are usually legal, they can sometimes engender heated debate. Much of the controversy surrounding deaccessioning by museums seems to arise from the perception that they are public institutions impressed with the role of protecting and preserving their collections intact for future generations.However, the enormous market prices for certain works of art in recent years have created tempting options for museums to raise funds by selling objects from their collections. This article aims at illustrating the problems institutions face when considering the disposition of objects in their collections. The legal framework that governs such sales will be outlined and the question posed as to whether these existing laws are adequate to address concerns surrounding sales, or whether new laws or other strategies are needed to resolve contentious dispositions.