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Working Paper Series

Capitalizing Art Museum Collections: Awkward for Museums But Good for Art and for Society


  • Michael O’Hare, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley


  • Goldman School of Public Policy Working Paper: GSPP08-005 (November 2005)


Though standard accounting practice requires that all assets of a firm be manifest in accounts, an exception to this principle allows museums to omit their entire collections from their balance sheets. As the collection of any top-rank museum has more value than the rest of a typical museum's assets put together, this practice greatly obstructs good institutional decisionmaking. The practice is justified by an assertion common in the museum community that the collection is not a financial asset, neither available for sale nor obligation as a loan security, and by a variety of other assertions regarding the cost of assessing it. These assertions are shown to be choices with no fundamental support beyond museum management comfort, or to be erroneous. 

The allocation of artistic patrimony across museums generates a return on investment below 1%, indicating that these assets are not being used efficiently to create the benefits museums (whether non-profit or public) are supposed to provide: no other organization would be allowed to control assets with such a low rate of return. Capitalizing collections is practical and would lead to a variety of beneficial changes in museum practice, on the criterion of inducing “more, better, engagement with more art by more people.”

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Last updated on 09/06/2013