Wednesday 16 October 2013

Are Museum Collections Safe?

A yellow-enamelled blue and white pomegranate dish from the Ming Dynasty; one of the items due to be auctioned off on 27 November in Hong Kong
I am very alarmed to read the following in a Museums Association bulletin today.

Museums Journal has learned that 89 objects are unaccounted for in Croydon Council’s Riesco collection of antique Chinese ceramics, which is currently at the centre of a disposal controversy.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society has shown that of the 650 items acquired by the council from local businessman Raymond Riesco, only 230 pieces remain in the council’s ownership.

According to council records, out of the original collection, 180 pieces were sold in 1970, 112 were sold in 1984 and 39 were stolen at an unspecified date.

This leaves 89 items apparently missing with no record as to their whereabouts.

Regarding the 39 stolen items, it is unclear when the theft was detected or what steps were taken to recover the objects.

According to the FOI response, the council has been unable to find any records detailing the theft, despite extensive searches, and it cannot speculate as to what happened as any employees named in records from the time no longer work for the council.

Paul Sowan, company secretary of the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society, said: “To say they’ve got no records of any of these items is utterly scandalous and unbelievable.

“They seem to be telling us that council records exist only in the minds of staff. It’s entirely unsatisfactory.”

A council spokeswoman told Museums Journal: "Unfortunately, despite considerable research by officers, some historical records are missing and because they pre-date the knowledge and employment of the present team we are unable to provide the details being requested."

24 of the remaining 230 items are due to be auctioned by Christie’s in Hong Kong next month. The council hopes the sale will raise an estimated £13m for the refurbishment of its Fairfield Halls cultural centre. The objects are currently on a tour of Asia and the US.

Croydon Council last month resigned from the Museums Association (MA) after the MA's ethics committee ruled that the impending auction was in breach of the association's code of ethics.


  1. I clicked on this post thinking it might be about security for Smithsonian museums during the federal shutdown in the US-- instead, I'm very interested now in the Croydon museum's decision to publicly auction these items to private collectors, BESIDES the fact that they couldn't keep up with what they had. Isn't it a curator's sole charge to protect and catalog treasures like these? Very interesting post!

  2. I know one museum in which, several years ago, the curators would not hand over their keys to an officially appointed collections manager to enable a proper inventory to be made. Coming from a regularly audited profession where my filing cabinet could be removed for inspection at a moment's notice I was quite bemused...... The problem is the doubt this raises for the security of all collections and for those who are thinking about endowing their collections.

  3. it may not be the curators who are at fault - it could well be that corrupt council officials took things for their own use. I asked my nieghbour a few years ago why he hadn't run for a second term in our town council, his reply - " I was sick of being the only person there not on the take"