June 25, 2009

The true price of priceless treasures

Posted at 8:38 pm in British Museum

Institutions such as the British Museum often refuse to put a monetary value on much of their collection, instead classifying it as priceless. Sometimes this is the case, even though the item was originally bought for a price – so a current fair price ought to be possible to assess. This lack of a clear idea of an items worth is often a stumbling block in negotiations for the return of an artefact, where some form of compensation may be required. Certainly, many of these artefacts may be impossible to replace if they were lost – but at the same time, there are few tangible objects in the real world that can not have some financial value attached to them.

New regulations coming in are likely to make it harder for institutions to avoid valuations of their collections.

Financial Director

Balance sheet reprieve for cultural gems
Mario Christodoulou, Accountancy Age, 25 Jun 2009

ASB releases new guidelines which encourage museums, galleries and other cultural institutions to place their collections on their books in a bid to increase transparency

The days when museums and galleries could leave their most precious items off their balance sheets are not quite over yet, according to new standards aimed at increasing the transparency surrounding heritage assets.

The Accounting Standards Board last week released new guidelines which encourage, but do not force, museums, galleries and other cultural institutions to place their collections on their books.

The board decided not to compel cultural institutions to undertake exhaustive valuations of their collections, believing the process to be expensive, time consuming and simply unrealistic. However, the new rules do require ongoing maintenance and stewardship costs to be included on financial books, in an attempt to increase transparency.

The new rules try to tackle the thorny issue of valuing what are generally considered ‘priceless’ artifacts and vast collections. The British Museum alone has about seven million artifacts with some collections taking up to ten years simply to catalogue, along with unique international draws such as the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles.

The prevailing accounting wisdom was simply to leave such assets off the balance sheet but the ASB launched a program in 2006 aimed at changing this culture.

The new rules were announced as Greece used the opening of its Acropolis Museum in Athens to repeat its call for the Elgin Marbles to be returned. Museum director Dimitris Pantermalis said the museum’s opening provided an opportunity to correct ‘an act of barbarism’.

There is some historic precedent for valuing cultural assets. Stonehenge in Wiltshire, which this week attracted 35,000 campers to the prehistoric site to experience the summer solstice, was valued and sold for £6,000 in 1915, shortly before being bequeathed to the public.

ASB project director Alan O’Connor said the new rules were no silver bullet but nevertheless represented a step in the right direction and were aimed at changing a culture which has seen large historic and artistic collections being unaccounted for on balance sheets.

‘The main difference is the new disclosure rules which will provide much more information on an entities holding of heritage assets,’ he said. ‘There are two problems really ­ the technical difficulty in obtaining a valuation, because these assets are unique and there is no established market, and the second issue is cost…the cost of getting the valuation and the resources that would need to be put into it.’

ASB chairman, Ian Mackintosh, said he hoped the new reporting standard would lead to better financial management in the arts’ sector. ‘A museum’s collections and exhibits are its greatest assets, yet under the current accounting practice many museums and galleries publish accounts that do not adequately reflect the collections that they exist to safeguard and preserve,’ he said.

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