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//Museums Tied Up in the Art Market// – Katarzyna Zalasińska

Museums Tied Up in the Art Market – Katarzyna Zalasińska

Museums Tied Up in the Art Market

A collection turns into a museum when it acquires a certain social function. Museums are also defined as institutions established to pursue a specific mission with the following goals: to collect and protect the durability of people’s natural and cultural heritage, both material and non-material; to inform about the values and contents of their collections; to disseminate the basic values of history, science, Polish and global culture; to shape cognitive and aesthetic sensitivity and to enable the public to use the collection. Museums are commonly viewed as art temples, however, they do not belong only to the sphere of the sacred. Quite to the contrary, they have a large impact on the way in which the art market operates in Poland, acting not only at the consumer level but also on a much larger scale.

Museums shape the demand

One of the basic tasks of museums is to collect valuable objects from a pre-determined category. In other words, the collection is the main point of the existence of museums. It is also their product. Museums are collectors, they participate in the art market and seek valuable objects to include in their collections. The law actually provides museums with the right of pre-emption, also at auctions, thus giving them an advantage over other participants of the market. However, in our times the collecting role of Polish museums is more or less an illusion, since at the beginning of the 1990s almost all standing funds used to enrich the holdings of museums (for instance the Purchase Fund and the Art Fund of the Ministry of Culture and Art) were shut down. So far, no other mechanisms of financing collections have been created. Indeed, museums can acquire annual ministerial funds to buy new items for their collections, but for obvious reasons such programmes require planning ahead and do not leave any margin for quick reaction to the changing market offer. When a new, valuable item appears on the market, all that museums can do is look for a private sponsor that would agree to finance the purchase. Meanwhile, auction catalogues are released only a few weeks before the bidding – such a short notice usually makes it impossible for museums to gather the necessary funds. Therefore, we may assume that the financial standing of Polish museums precludes them from participating in the art market, and their collecting activity is to a large extent limited.

Museums as sellers

The special nature of museum collections assumes that they will constantly grow, acquiring more and more items. As a result, museums may store ill-advised purchases (objects that, contrary to forecasts, with time lost their value), forgeries (or copies wrongly deemed to be originals) or doubles. This is why the law enables museums to sell, exchange or donate its holdings in justified cases. Pursuant to Article 23 of the Museum Act, national and local museums may exchange, sell or donate their possessions upon the prior consent of the minister of culture and national heritage. This permission may be granted in justified cases only, while the proceeds must be used to finance new acquisitions. However, the tragic fate of Polish heritage has contributed to the dominant social sentiment that ‘national collections are inalienable’, which in turn makes museums wary of selling their ‘unwanted possessions’. The legal provisions that permit museums to sell their holdings are thus rendered practically void. One would be hard-pressed to find any former possessions of Polish museums at the antiques market.

Other countries are virtually free of the inalienability taboo. As Jean Clair writes about the crisis of museums in the times of globalisation: ‘It seems now completely acceptable that public collections do not constitute spiritual heritage, testimony of the country’s history and the image of its memory, so valuable to our lay democracies as cult objects were valued for the believers in religious societies. We now treat them as common goods that may be given away, exchanged, lent, and finally sold’.[1] In our times, the most heated debated as to whether museums should be able to sell their collections concentrates around the operations of the American Guggenheim Foundation. In January 2005, going against the verdict of the American Alliance of Museums, the Foundation decided to sell some of its possessions in order to finance its constant development policy run by the director (in 1992, it resulted in the construction of the previously failed wing to the masterpiece building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright).

We need to underline, however, that items from the collections of Polish museums do appear on the art market (both in the country and abroad). Each year, there are more and more cases of theft. Such objects are usually legally purchased by consumers and museum are thus unable to reclaim their ownership. This situation results from the construction of Civil Code provisions, adopted after 1990. Pursuant to Article 169 ‘if an item is stolen, misplaced or otherwise lost by its owner and is then sold off before the lapse of three years since its misplacement, theft or loss, the buyer may receive the ownership title only upon the lapse of the said three-year period’. Good faith upon the moment of the acquisition of the object is not enough; the buyer needs to keep it until the three-year period finally lapses. However, once it does, the previous owner, even if it is a museum, can no longer demand the transfer of custody of the object, which then ends up on the market. These loopholes turn museums into victims of the market. Nevertheless, years of efforts to rectify the status quo led to an important precedent that improved the situation of museums. In the case of the Kossak fans stolen from the museum in Górki Wielkie in 1993 and then put up for sale by an auction house, the court decided that the fact that information about the theft was published in the national register of objects that were stolen or transferred abroad precludes any good faith. The museum thus reclaimed its valuables.

Museums as experts

Museums, especially in Poland, also play an important role in providing services to the market. Article 34 of the Museum Act states that a museum employee, within the duration of his or her employment, shall abide by the accepted rules of professional conduct, including the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, and in particular shall not trade in items in which the museum may be interested or take up any activities, such as collecting or preparing expert opinions and appraisals, that could lead to a conflict of interest with the museum in which he or she is employed. At the same time, many museum charters state that these institutions conduct business activity and, inter alia, prepare expert opinions. It seems however that such services may only be provided within the scope specified by the laws regarding the exportation of antiques, i.e. they are limited to appraisal and estimation of age of the exported object. In other cases, such services involve the museum in the art market, which is forbidden. We need to bear in mind that museums are treated not only as art temples but also as institutions of public trust. It is thus deemed that museum employees fulfil a public mission and are therefore responsible for the social image of the museum. Therefore, preparing expert opinions and appraisals that may lead to a conflict of interest is banned in all cases in which such services would be provided to the art market. In reality, however, a lion’s share of expert opinions are signed by museum employees. This situation results from the very construction of the Polish market, on which there is still no such profession as an art expert, and the state does not recognise this type of activity. The handful of non-museum experts are still only an exception to the rule.

Involving museums and its employees in the market threatens their reputations. The Polish art market is especially vulnerable when it comes to forgery. Museums ought to employ specialists to protect the national heritage, however, they are not infallible. Everyone remembers the story of the alleged Fishermen with a Net, painted by Leon Wyczółkowski and bought for PLN 80 thousand by the National Museum in Gdańsk in the autumn of 2007 from a private owner. The seller presented an expert opinion prepared by a professor from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń. Shockingly, while the Museum in Gdańsk spent more and more money to confirm or deny the authenticity of the painting, the original was safely stored in the magazines of the National Museum in Krakow. In this way, the credibility of museums, experts and the market itself was put into question. All with public money.

Museums driving market prices

Museums arguably fulfil the most important role in shaping art market prices. Quite often, they do it inadvertently, not realising that by choosing an artist or a period and running adequate promotion they may set a trend for certain pieces of art. These fashions may be more or less fleeting, but they do drive demand. What is more, all art appraisers realise that the ‘major exhibition’ label automatically increases the price as a certificate of authenticity and origin. In the case of private holdings displayed in national museums after 1989, the issue of building the reputation of a certain collection and its owner is also crucial.

The 2009 exhibition of the collection of the most famous Polish art dealer, Andrzej Starmach, was a major event in Polish art circles. His holdings were displayed in the National Museum, Krakow, in December of that year. Before, the main building presented a part of Krzysztof Musiał’s (Records of Changes. Polish Art of the 19th and 20th Centuries from Krzysztof Musiał’s Collection, 28.3–4.5.2008) and Rafael Jablonka’s collection (First Step: Towards a Collection of Western Contemporary Art, 30.5.2008–31.12.2009). The grand scale of the event led to a debate on the relationship between the public and the commercial, as well as the very gist of museums’ mission. As Łukasz Białkowski commented on Obieg.pl, ‘Let us then put it simply: the exhibition halls of the National Museum were in this way reduced to an element of a strategy aimed towards enhancing the cultural and economic capital of the Starmachs. It casts doubt upon one of the basic features of museums as non-economic entities. The supposed neutrality of a public institution is questioned by the economic consequences connected with exhibiting and confirming the status of a private collection’.[2] However, it does not mean that museums should refrain from exhibiting private collectors. They just need to realise that their activity has both a direct and indirect impact on the state of the art market in Poland. Private collections are sometimes acquired by museums and also may support their exhibitions by helping to trace the evolution of taste and predict future trends. At the same time, they preserve objects whose lesser value puts them outside the scope of museum collections but are nevertheless worth keeping. Private collections may also become the foundation of a museum. Some institutions would not have seen the light of day without them, just as the Centre of Japanese Art and Technology, established courtesy of the collector Feliks ‘Manggha’ Jasieński, who donated over 15 thousand objects. Polish museums today need such people. Without them, they will not be able to develop their collections.


The future of Polish museums at the art market

The museum financing system needs to be reformed if museums are to function properly on the art market. Their collecting activity is also in need of a boost. Museums should become active buyers, purchasing the most precious objects that appear on the market. Currently, they cannot achieve this basic objective. They also need to realise how powerful a force they are on the art market, driving demand and credibility with their actions. We also need to bear in mind that as institutions, museums have been granted a mandate to carry out tasks that are of crucial importance from the social point of view. Therefore, they should refrain from engaging in any activity that may put their reputation at risk. Becoming entangled in the still non-transparent art market is one of the biggest threats they face. The rules of the market game may put their good name, which took decades to create, into question.


[1] J. Clair, Kryzys muzeów. Globalizacja kultury, słowo/obraz terytoria, Gdańsk 2009, p. 7.

[2] Ł. Białkowski, Między fetyszem a depozytem. Kolekcja Starmachów w MNK, Obieg.pl 22.12.2009, http://www.obieg.pl/recenzje/15377 (retrieved: 11.3.2013).