The art trade and private collectors are the source for many museum collections. It is a falsehood that only the rich benefit from a thriving art market and their privately owned artwork.

The symbiotic relationship between collectors, the trade, museums, academia, discovery, research and preservation goes back 100s of years.

Private and scholarly enterprise on the part of the art market has vastly contributed to the establishment, development and prosperity of museums, not just as repositories of artefacts or artworks, but as vibrant seats of learning.

Museums intersect with the market by buying artworks at auction or from dealers to add to their collections and by accepting donations of works or money for their collections from collectors and dealers. Public galleries and museums also depend on dealers and collectors for loans of art in order to stage special exhibitions. Museums rely on art market professionals to provide valuations for insurance or loans, ranging from antiquities to contemporary works of art. Academics write catalogues for gallery exhibitions, endorse discoveries, attributions and reattributions, and advise on provenance, among other roles. It is the interrelationships of those involved directly and indirectly in the art market which help contribute to the development of museums.

Some of the world’s most famous museums, drawing in millions of tourist, were formerly private collections which were opened to the public in the 18th century, such as the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy; The Louvre in Paris, France; and The Hermitage Museum, Russia. UNESCO estimates that  the number of museums around the world has increased from 22,000 in 1975 to 95,000 today.[1]. More than 90% of the art collections held in public trust by America’s art museums, about 20 years ago, were donated by private individuals.[2]

To use UNESCO’s words, “Museums can play a leading role in bolstering the creative economy locally and regionally. Museums are also increasingly present in the social sphere, acting as platforms for debate and discussion, tackling complex societal issues and encouraging public participation.”[3] The Art Newspaper’s annual survey revealed that overall attendance of the world’s 100 most- visited art museums was 230 million in 2019 (pre-covid).[4]

Without those collectors past and present acquiring their possessions – often from dealers or auction houses – and the generous bequests that followed, where would these seats of learning be today?

The intertwining of the private (collectors), the public (dealers and auction houses) and the academic in all fields of art, from antiquities forward, increases scholarship, increases awareness and makes all art more approachable. Art is not a forbidden fruit that few should be allowed to understand or even see, it is the expression of mankind in all its glory and, at times, in its weakness. Dealers, in particular, understand that artworks should be preserved and protected and act to ensure an artwork’s longevity. Museums do the same, the relationship inevitably linked.

One must also bear in mind that in fulfilling our commitments to protect, preserve and conserve our cultural heritage, we must take care not to ignore one aspect of public interest entirely as we pursue another. Otherwise we risk sowing the seeds of future cultural negligence by cutting off the very source and lifeblood of scholarship and interest. Measures that are too restrictive will prevent museums, the trade and collectors from performing their commitments to research, conserve, and exhibit artworks internationally.  If private ownership and commercial trade are curtailed, museum collections and the sharing of knowledge are likely to be adversely affected. Museums alone cannot be expected to conserve all of the artworks which have legitimately been traded internationally for centuries.

[2] Art Museum, Private Collectors and the Public Benefit (2007), Association of Art Museum Directors, p.1