Valuing Museum Collections

Apr 24, 2014

While curatorial and registrar staff are careful not to report the value of works in their care, the topic is of great interest to the general public especially in high-profile stories relating to damaged or stolen pieces. Sensationalized newspaper headlines quickly and often inaccurately focus upon the value of works in museum collections as was the case in two recent occurrences.

Example 1: After the destruction of a Han Dynasty-era vase painted by Ai Weiwei, most news headlines proclaimed a valuation of one million dollars based upon speculative hearsay.

Example 2: Articles about the Pierre-Auguste Renoir recovered for the Baltimore Museum of Art reported drastically different values for the painting, with an auction estimate of $75,000 and an FBI appraisal at $22,000.

 News reporters and the general public have not been educated to understand the difference among market levels, auction estimates, realized auction sales and a professional appraisal, but the difference can be very important for museum professionals. Two areas in which the difference can be critical relate to insuring museum collections and to the deaccessioning of objects.

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