Sunday, June 6, 2021

Donating to a Museum

Donating art is not as simple as you think, and it can get downright difficult. What do you wish to donate? Oh, the painting your grandmother made on her vacation in Europe. If your grandmother was not a known artist, do you think that anyone aside from you or your parents would want to come to see it? 

Let’s say, however, you have a French 18th century painting by a famous artist such as Fragonard, obviously neither the Crystal Bridges Museum nor the Amon Carter would be interested as they collect only American Art. My point being you need to find an institution where it would enhance their collection and one that does not already have ten superior examples in order to have your donation accepted by the institution.

Well, finally you do find such a museum in, shall we say, Nowheresville, USA. In fact, it is the National Museum of Nowheresville, and this is just what they were looking for. What happens, however, if a billionaire from Nowheresville subsequently leaves a bequest of ten Fragonards and sadly your picture becomes inferior and redundant. Do you care that the picture that has come down through your family for three generations is going to be put on the auction block? All will see that the painting your grandparents treasured is being rejected from where you hoped it would reside in perpetuity. Why didn’t you think of donating your painting with the stipulation that it could not be sold? Works of art have been donated in that manner by a number of collectors, but increasingly museums negotiate an agreement to keep the work in the collection for a certain number of years. Don’t forget to discuss whether you wish your art work’s label to say, “Given by with your name” or “Given by you in honor of your grandmother.”

Congratulations, your painting was accepted under your conditions but what you cannot do, is guarantee that it will always be on exhibition, and it may very well be put in storage. You probably can request that the picture be up for a certain amount of time after the donation but that is probably all you can guarantee. If, however, you are giving a Leonardo da Vinci or a whole collection that you want shown together then you will have greater leverage in your negotiations. This was the case with the Jack and Belle Linsky collection of Old Master paintings and European decorative arts donated to the Metropolitan Museum 1982 on condition that it be permanently shown together in a series of dedicated galleries. Fortunately, there was no prohibition on changes in attribution as the centerpiece of the Linsky Galleries, the famed Rospigliosi cup, was eventually downgraded from a Renaissance masterpiece by Benvernuto Cellini to a copy by the 19th century goldsmith Reinhold Vasters. It is now labelled as such, though it still occupies its position of honor.

These issues can get so complicated that you may very well require a lawyer, not to mention an accountant but I will come to that in a moment. You are effectively drawing up a contract with the museum which has financial consequences … or you may not care and just sign the papers the institution gives you.

If you don’t live anywhere near Nowheresville, I hope you remembered to discuss with the museum as to who is paying for packing, shipping and insurance in transit. The museum registrar usually makes the arrangements, but it may be left to you.

Hopefully, the negotiations go smoothly and both sides are pleased with the result. If it is a valuable work of art, however, you will probably want the tax deduction that goes with its donation. Once upon a time, you could pretty much claim any reasonable value and it would be accepted. However, after too many donors took advantage of this ability, the IRS started to require professionals who had to get a degree as appraisers to write an extensive report with details of how they came to their conclusions. This includes the condition, history of the work, publications it might have appeared in as well as corroborating auction sale records, art dealer sales and any other backup they can supply. As you can imagine this time-consuming service is not inexpensive and the donor must pay the cost. This is the actual tax form the appraiser must also submit.

I have not gone too far into the weeds here and I am sure I have left out many permutations of gift giving. As usual just trying to get my readers to think about the ramifications and results of a situation. Also, I am certainly not trying to discourage making contributions to our cultural institutions but only wish to show that it takes some forethought before doing so.

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