Mark A. Greene 2016-09-26 13:04:43
While fifty states, the territories, and the District of Columbia have adopted unclaimed property laws that pertain to “intangible property” such as money and financial instruments, the holdings of cultural institutions fall instead under “tangible property.” SAA’s Acquisitions and Appraisal Section has an ongoing project to monitor state legislation regarding abandoned archival, museum, and library property and to make easily accessible the wording of relevant statutes state by state. Recently, a subscriber to the Archives and Archivists listserv asked the question, “Has anyone ever deaccessioned artwork by donation or sale successfully without documentation on the provenance of the piece?” This was only the latest in a long history of concern and confusion relating to management or deaccessioning of undocumented material in archival and museum repositories or, as it is commonly referred to, the problem of abandoned property. A Question of Ownership I first became aware of the difficulties posed by such undocumented accessions while serving as the manuscripts acquisitions curator at the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS). While working on a reappraisal and deaccession project in the summer of 1999 with associate curator Todd J. Daniels-Howell, we quickly discovered that many of the small collections, particularly those that after reappraisal we wished to deaccession, had no formal documentation clearly demarcating a transfer of ownership from the donor to MHS. In many instances there was not even information on who the donor was or when the collection was received. We knew we would be running a significant risk by deaccessioning material we did not own, or even of reassessing the collection to remove specific files or series that were not pertinent to the fonds or to the MHS’s collecting goals. But it was also becoming apparent that we had hundreds of such collections clogging up our cataloging backlog; we didn’t want to have this material permanently hidden from intellectual access and use. So Daniels-Howell and I began researching if Minnesota had a relevant abandoned property law (it did not in 1999) and, if not, which states did and what they looked like. Because at this time not every state had its statutes online and searchable, our research covered only thirty-eight states; of these, half had abandoned property laws for museums, libraries, and museums. Advocating for Legislation Those nineteen laws were very similar to one another, prompting Daniels-Howell and me to begin drafting a statute for Minnesota that we hoped a state legislator would introduce for us. The state did not adopt such legislation until the spring of 2004, several years after I had departed MHS. In the intervening years I submitted my research to the SAA Acquisitions and Appraisal Section, which promptly posted it on their website (as incomplete as the research was) in the hope that volunteers might carry the research forward for the remaining states. During 2009–2011, section member Linda Whitaker further pursued the project, so comprehensively, in fact, that in 2012 the section published the first iteration of “The Abandoned Property Project.” The project has just been updated through the spring of 2016, and we hope it will be beneficial to archivists across the nation, since almost all of us have abandoned property in our holdings. The work of updating was carried out by a small subcommittee co-chaired by Cliff Hight and Marcella Huggard and joined by Courtney Mumma, Whitaker, and me. Clearing Up Confusion Tangible property includes non-real estate property items—material that can be moved, touched, or felt. Most states in the United States have provided libraries, archives, and museums with statutes regarding abandoned tangible property that has been given to a cultural or heritage institution and how those institutions may acquire ownership of the material in order to catalog, exhibit, and otherwise dispose of it. Most of these statutes provide definitions for what institutions are covered by the law, what constitutes abandoned property, and for how long an institution must have physical ownership of an item before following the procedures to acquire legal ownership. These laws typically require that an institution provide legal notice about the property so that individuals or other entities who may have a claim in the property know of its existence at the cultural institution; the length of time for this legal notice varies from state to state, as does how long an institution must have physical ownership before following this process. As of 2016, only four states (Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, and West Virginia), most of the territories, and Washington, DC, have not adopted abandoned property laws with language specific to cultural institutions. Interestingly, when Whitaker pursued the “No” respondents, individuals (including curators, archivists, and legislators) seemed either to not consider it a problem or were mistaken about the situation in their states/territories—they thought they had a law governing abandoned cultural property when in fact they did not. Take, for example, this email exchange in May 2016 with two curatorial professionals (the former an archivist at a major repository and the latter a museum curator—both at a public university). The archivist reported, “I confess that I am not familiar with issues involved with abandoned property and have not dealt with any situations related to it at work,” whereas the museum curator was adamant that “There is no statute and it’s a big problem. . . . We might need to work with a legislator to get a bill on this.” In any event, our project presents its information as in the examples immediately below, with the “link” leading directly to the relevant state statute. We are hopeful this format is accessible and useful, but welcome suggestions to make the presentation even better. CALIFORNIA Yes Link Citation California Civil Code Section 1899-1899.11 Notes: “A ‘museum’ is an institution located in California and operated by a nonprofit corporation or public agency, primarily educational, scientific, or aesthetic in purpose, which owns, borrows, or cares for, and studies, archives, or exhibits property”; outlines the issues and conditions in which museums function and may claim title to property; lists donor and museum obligations; provides notification templates; unclaimed Property Law beginning with Section 1500 of the Code of Civil Procedure may also apply. Some states are listed not as “Yes” or “No” regarding the existence of abandoned property law, but as “Other.” These latter entries, four states and one territory, generally have statutes that cover only a subset of archives, museums, and/or libraries, as below: NEVADA Other Link Citation Nevada Revised Statutes, Chapter 381, Section 9 (see also section 1 for covered museums). Notes: Apparently applies only to museums in the state system of museums. Share Your Feedback! If the project pages might be useful to you or if you have a question or additional facts to supply, visit www2.archivists.org/groups/acquisitions-appraisal-section/abandoned-property-project or contact Linda Whitaker at email@example.com. Those who are interested in the work of the best practices subcommittee, including our current project on collection development policies, may contact Marcella Huggard at firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information.
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This page can be found at http://www.bluetoad.com/article/Who+Owns+This%3F+The+Abandoned+Property+Project/2595431/341966/article.html.