By now, everybody knows about the sale of artifacts from Rideau Hall at bargain-basement prices. In a nutshell, Sun Media learned that the Federal Government was offering items from the National Collections mixed in with redundant computers and old office desks. Press attention prompted the Government to halt the sales, but not before about fifteen items had been snapped up at ridiculous prices.
Most of the buyers were from Quebec and bought multiple items. (Who can blame them?) Those Quebec antique dealers are pretty savvy.
Museums do not like to make a big deal out of de-accessioning, as they fear (quite rightly) that potential donors will get cold feet if they think that their treasures will not remain in collections forever. However, logistics and common sense require that museums from time to time review their holdings and, yes, items are culled. It goes on at the best of institutions. Usually it happens because artifacts have been replaced by better quality examples, but sometimes the artifacts are no longer right for the collection. Also, curators are human and occasionally mistakes in collecting occur.
There are protocols about de-accessioning. Although done discretely, it is not done in secret but rather carefully considered and debated by an appropriate management committee or board, which should be able to document the reasons for the decision. Things in the public domain should be offered to other, more appropriate institutions where they will remain in the public domain. IF no charitable tax receipt has yet been issued and IF there is still an incontestable clear line to the donor, the artifact might be offered back. Should neither of these options work out, a museum might de-accession to the market.
The first step is to get a proper financial appraisal. The second step is to select an appropriate dealer to handle the sale, usually a reputable auction house. The appraisal is used to establish a “reserve”, the minimal amount for which the item may be sold, to prevent advantage being taken of the museum. The up side to using an auction house is that the market sets the price, reducing the chance of accusations later. The down-side is publicity. Obviously, if the item is really significant, public discussion will be triggered, but this is a good thing. After all, the items are in collections belonging to the people.
The pressure to cull the Rideau Hall collections may have come from above, from a demand for more “revenue” on the books, which I suspect was case as the Federal Government has just brought in a frightening deficit budget.
If so, the idea was misguided. Another protocol is that revenues from sales of artifacts from public museums are turned around and used for collections development at the same institution. The revenues are not stripped off and used to fund the bail-out of General Motors.
The National Capital Commission and their employees, the staff at Rideau Hall must have been involved in this mess, at least in selection of stuff to be sold, if in no other way. According to a retired staff member, the provenance of the items was entirely ignored. If he is correct, and I would expect that he is, then the National Capital Commission and current staff at Rideau Hall do not have sufficient knowledge of their 7000 item collection. The catalogue controls must be in horrible shape.
It seems that in the case of Rideau Hall, the National Capital Commission chose to ignore all the protocols. Statements from Kathryn Keyes of the NCC show no evidence of a proper committee decision with clearly documented justifications for de-accession. There is no evidence that Rideau Hall offered the items to other museums or back to Buckingham Palace from whence at least some things came. The National Capital Commission also did not insist on expert appraisals. No doubt, they were under pressure from Crown Assets Distribution, where the bean-counters resented paying someone to tell them what to charge for the artifacts. However, the National Capital Commission is supposed to have the education, understanding and integrity to manage a national treasure like Rideau Hall, so one wonders why they rolled over for a bunch of clerks?
Fundamentally, though, the National Capital Commission and Crown Assets Distribution equate to The Federal Government. Tossing artifacts from Rideau Hall into the weekly Government Garage Sale was ultimately the work of the current Canadian Government. The level of ignorance about the world of art and artifacts that this reveals is frightening. These are the people who have custody of our National Gallery, the Museum of Civilization, the National Library and Archives and more besides. What else are they up to, one wonders. Is there no respect for our cultural property?
Instead of raising the bar, the current Federal Government would seem to have levelled the cultural playing field to the lowest denominator.