What Is Deaccessioning of Art in Museums?

October 6, 2022

What Does Deaccession Mean?

Deaccessioning is the process used to permanently remove an object from the Museum’s collection. The process undertaken by a museum to deaccession a work involves several steps that are usually laid out in a museum’s collection management policy.

Each museum establishes its own method and workflow for the deaccession process according to its organizational structure, whether through a board of trustees or other professional practices. However, all object deaccessioning involves the two processing steps of deaccession and disposal.

What Are The Guidelines Museums Follow When Deaccessioning?

Deaccessioning Artwork

The process begins with the curator creating a document called a “statement of justification,” which outlines their decision and reasoning for presenting the work for a possible deaccession.

To determine if a work should be deaccessioned from a museum’s collection, a curator or registrar completes and documents a series of justification steps and then present their findings to the museum director and governing board of trustees for final approval.

Once the director and board approve, the deaccessioned object will be in the disposal process.

Disposal of Artwork 

Disposal is defined as the transfer of ownership by the museum after work has been deaccessioned. Following approval of deaccession from the governing board and museum director, the work is disposed of, and the title of ownership is completely transferred away from the museum or terminated. 

The method chosen is determined by the physical condition of the work, the intrinsic value or cultural value of the work, and the monetary value of the work.

With all disposal methods, museums are charged to maintain and retain all records of the object, its deaccession, and disposal.

Disposal is completed through the following methods:

  • Donation of the object to another museum, library, or archive for educational purposes
  • Exchange for another object with another museum or non-profit institution
  • Repatriation, when the artwork in question was found to be illicitly held by the museum, such as Nazi-looted art
  • Return to the original donor of the artwork
  • Sale, whether through private sale or public auction

Why Do Museums Deaccession Fine Art ?

A museum may decide to remove an artwork or multiple works from its permanent collections for various reasons. Museums hold collections in the public trust for public access. This responsibility and decision of what is displayed are meant to reflect the desires of the public and the cultural aims of the institution.

A Curatorial Perspective

Deaccessions are often necessary to refine collections to shape the museum’s collecting character. The museum could be ushering in a new exhibition or setting a new wave of what the institution wishes to display.

For example, previous models of museum collections have tended to focus on white male artists, especially the permanent collections of America’s museums that have a disproportionate amount of white and male artists compared to their contemporaries. This lack of representation has led to public outcry, particularly among women and African-Americans, culminating in multiple online petitions to put a stop to this and for the museums to acquire more artwork from female artists and artists of color.


In other scenarios, a choice to remove an artwork is due to illegitimate ownership or provenance before being inducted in the museum collection that doesn’t represent the museum code of ethics.

Deaccession would be permitted if the authenticity or attribution of the work is determined to be false or fraudulent. This was the case earlier this year when the Orlando Museum of Art was investigated in regards to a collection of forged Basquiat paintings being on display.

Removal would also be done if the work may have been stolen or illegally imported in violation of applicable laws of the jurisdiction in which the museum is located, or the work may be subject to other legal claims, such as with works misappropriated under Nazi rule.

Direct Care

There are cases when the museum cannot care adequately for the work and then will choose to deaccession the artwork. This is either because of the work’s particular requirements for storage or display or its continuing need for special treatment for proper and long-term conservation. 

If the physical condition of the work is so poor that restoration is not practicable or would compromise the work’s integrity or the artist’s intent, the museum will choose the deaccession and disposal to an archive for educational use or another institution with sufficient tools of direct care of collections.

Deaccessioning Funds

The auction proceeds or private sales from a deaccessioned work are usually used to acquire other works of art or even as operating funds to build an endowment when the museum is in desperate need.

According to the Association of Art Museum Directors: “Funds received from the disposal of a deaccessioned work shall not be used for operations or capital expenses. Such funds, including any earnings and appreciation thereon, may be used only for the acquisition of works in a manner consistent with the museum’s policy on the use of restricted acquisition funds.”

This stipulation was relaxed in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its negative impact on museum revenues, permitting some degree of deaccession through 2022.

Why Is Deaccessioning Important?

Deaccessioning is a controversial topic and activity, with diverging opinions from artists, arts professionals, and the general art world. Strict stipulations for the deaccessioning of work need to be presented and approved by a majority of the governing body. This remarks more on the museum’s mission and initiatives that it, as an institution, wants to implement. 

Aside from that, there is a moral and ethical code to follow regarding the deaccession policy to ensure the integrity of the artwork, the artist, and any rightful owner.

Deaccession, though not always ideal, creates checks and balances in the museum governance. It distinguishes what work should be displayed and ensures the social and ethical responsibilities that they have in place, being homes for the public interest.

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