In the museum sector there’s a bit of unwillingness to discuss the financial value of objects. After all, museums are not run as salerooms and their focus is on the other sorts of value that collections hold.
Of course, for some artworks it can be hard to ignore the massive price tags that they sometimes carry and there are some good arguments that in our materialistic society, which has become increasingly focussed on economics, there are sound reasons for including financial value in considerations about collections. An interesting discussion about this between two NatSCA stalwarts, Jan Freedman and Mark Carnall, was recently published by the Museums Association.
Worth £175 million today. Card Players (5th version ca.1894-1895) by Paul Cezanne is the most expensive painting in the world. For now… (image from Musée d’Orsay)
For those of us who work in museums, we normally only consider a specimen’s price-tag when acquiring new material, deaccessioning material or dealing with insurance valuations for exhibitions and loans.
When acquiring specimens, the consideration is about whether an asking price is fair and an appropriate amount to spend in the context of institutional priorities and budget. When deaccessioning, the consideration is rather more complex and is linked to appropriate methods of disposal and the motivations for disposal. Deaccessioning shouldn’t be done in order to make money, but disposal by sale may be an option as long as the processes involved in the decision meet professional standards.
The controversial disposal by sale of the statue of Sekhemka has caused problems for Northampton Museum & Art Gallery. (Image of the statue on display c.1950s – uploaded by Bibilovski, 2012)
When assessing these sorts of values it can be very useful to look to private auctions for a guide, which take place every so often at a variety of auction houses. For natural history it can be worth checking Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Summers Place. However, auctions tend to deal with the more showy objects, rather than the scientific specimens that museum staff often have to deal with, especially for research loans.
Insurance valuations are slightly different, since these may not simply relate to the market value of an object, but could take into consideration the cost of conservation if the object is damaged, or the cost of going into the field to collect a similar specimen to replace it if it’s the sort of specimen that doesn’t come up for sale. Either of these possibilities may be far more expensive than a likely sale value.
One of the issues with putting a price on objects is that it may make them more obviously attractive to criminals. For instance, a sudden spike in the street value of illegal rhino horn in parts of Asia around 2009 led to a massive increase in the prices of antique rhino trophies at auction, until special measures were introduced to stop this loophole in trade. In addition it has led to the targeted thefts of hundreds of specimens from collections around the world.
Taxidermy rhino with the horn removed and sign explaining the problem of thefts from museum specimens. (Image by Dr John Hutchinson, 2013)
Of course, by being aware of the changing value of specimens and therefore the changing risk of theft, museums are able to take steps to ensure that appropriate security measures are put in place to properly care for their objects. So although the financial value of objects can be complex to address, it is clear that there is a need for museums to know how much their collections are worth, since other people may be only too aware.