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Ethics of Acquisition

ICOM has always given a special attention to the ethical dimension of the museum profession.
The ethical aspect was at first primarily linked to the museum acquisitions and international circulation of cultural property.
This "Ethics of Acquisitions" Statement (1970) was one of the first ICOM documents drawn to prepare a comprehensive "Code of professional Ethics". The Code was adopted by the 1986 General Assembly in Buenos Aires (Argentina) and revised in 2001 and in 2004 by the General Assemblies in Barcelona (Spain) and in Seoul (Rep. of Korea).

Ethics of Acquisition (1970)

The first agreement form
ICOM recommendations
Some museum policy example
National policy example
List of experts participants

In April 1970 a group of ICOM experts met in Paris to study the problem of ethical rules governing museum acquisitions. The result of this meeting was the adoption by ICOM of the resolutions which are reprinted below, based on the following fundamental principles:

"Whatever the subject matter or discipline of the museum and wherever it may be situated in the world, certain principles of ethics and professional integrity in relation to acquisition can be presumed to be applicable. Briefly, this means there must be a full, clear and satisfactory documentation in relation to the origin of any object to be acquired. This is quite as important for an object generally classified in the category of art as for an object of archaeology, of ethnology, or of national and natural history."

Since that time the ICOM Secretariat has been at work implementing the recommendations made to ICOM by the committee. This document precedes and announces the publication later this year of a summary of the laws of each country governing field research and exportation of cultural property. The publication will follow the format of the example of Afghanistan found below.
It is now time to invite the museum profession at large to examine the recommendations of ICOM, in view of adopting them as a framework for their own statutes governing acquisitions. The adoption of these resolutions by a museum will become effective upon the return of the attached form to the ICOM Secretariat. Since the resolutions of ICOM cannot be taken as a final code, applicable to all museums, we are also publishing here the summarized policies of museums which have recently taken an initiative in establishing individual ethical policies. These examples are given to provide guidelines for the museums pledging adherence to the ICOM resolutions in working out their own policies.
A first list of all museums which have agreed to follow these ethical rules will be published with the publication of the laws governing antiquities. It is hoped that the greatest possible number of museums will join the ten original experts of the 1970 meeting in adhering to the policies set down here, thus providing a basis for professional cooperation in this important matter.

As a first step in establishing a professional ethical code regarding acquisition, the staff of the
............................................................................ museum accepts the ICOM recommendations as a minimum standard for the collection of objects, thereby agreeing to assist other countries in safeguarding and enriching their cultural heritage, and to give preferential treatment in all professional activities to other museums adhering to the code.


Signature of responsible officer:
Signing of the agreement is valid upon receipt of this form along with a description of the museum's programme and acquisition policy, and a description of acquisitions and services requested by the museum to ICOM Secretariat, Unesco House, 1 rue Miollis, Paris 15e.

ICOM RECOMMENDATIONS (Ethics of Acquisitions, 1970)

  1. The museum of today is not a mere repository of objects: it is concerned with the acquisition of the objects as an integral part of a specific programme of:
    1. scientific research,
    2. education,
    3. conservation,
    4. the demonstration of National and International, Natural and Cultural Heritage.
  2. Some museums may encompass all aspects of this far-reaching programme, whilst others may specialize in certain parts of it. Consequently no object should be acquired which has no part to play in the aims of the museum as demonstrated by its programme.
  3. The object being considered for acquisition may come from anywhere within a wide spectrum of definitions, the two extremes of which may be briefly summarized as being:
    1. objects recognised by scholarship and/or the community where they have their full cultural significance as having a unique quality and are therefore beyond value;
    2. objects which, though not necessarily rare in themselves, nevertheless have a value which derives from their cultural and natural environment.
  4. The significance of the object (cultural and scientific) will depend upon its being fully documented. As a matter of principle no acquisition should be made without this full documentation, with the possible exception of certain objects which come near to that end of the spectrum characterized by definition (a), paragraph 3, when the essential documentation relative to the latter may be obtained by systematic research after acquisition.
  5. In most fields, direct acquisitions are best obtained by scientifically conducted research missions. They may occur in the mission' s own country or abroad. In the latter case they must be conducted with the agreement or the cooperation, and according to the laws of the host country.
  6. Direct acquisitions can also be made through cooperation with a museum or with an institution responsible for the safeguard of the national cultural heritage, in the country possessing the required object. These same principles may also be profitably applied "mutatis mutandis" to objects which come near to that end of the spectrum characterized by definition (a), paragraph 3.
  7. The object acquired by direct means is as well documented as possible; this is not always the case with indirect acquisitions. Whereas direct acquisitions conducted as described in paragraphs 5 and 6, will always conform to ethical standards, this may not always be the case with the indirect system.
  8. The indirect acquisition, which includes the gift and bequest, is that which has been acquired through one, or more intermediaries. When a museum feels obliged to acquire an object indirectly, this should always be done in observance of the laws and interests of the country from which it is obtained, or the country of origin when the country from which it is obtained is only a place of commercial transit.
  9. The responsibility of the museum professional in those museums which have as their primary function the preservation of the national heritage is threefold:
    1. to acquire and preserve for the country concerned a comprehensive collection illustrating all aspects of the nation's cultural and natural heritage;
    2. to control the international movement of objects belonging to this heritage;
    3. to cooperate with foreign museums and other scientific institutions to ensure adequate representation of that culture on an international scale.
  10. It is imperative that if the museum is to fulfil completely its roles in education and intemational understanding, its professional staff must observe the highest ethical standards not only in the very important process of acquisition but also in the other fields of their professional activity.

Suggestions for the Implementation of the Recommendations

  1. Museum programmes should be published. This will encourage exchange and outside help.
  2. The acquisition of objects by any museum should not be limited to what is necessary for the exhibition halls, but sufficient objects should be collected for study and conservation purposes, for exchange with and for supply to local museums and for international exchange. However, objects should never be accumulated solely for their commercial value.
  3. Material for exchange should encompass objects of sufficiently high standard to attract objects of similar standard from other museums. Exchange should mean not merely object against object but also object against services and equipment.
  4. Documentation acquired by a scientific expedition should be made available to the country in which the expedition was carried out, after a certain agreed period of time, during which the scientific rights are reserved to the discoverer. The same documentation should be made available under the same conditions to the museum in the country which organised the expedition.
  5. With due regard to legal requirements and UNESCO recommendations and conventions relative to sharing the products of field research, every endeavour should be made to respect the ecological association of a group of objects. Certain objects and collections are sometimes lent to a foreign museum or scientific institution for study purposes. On such occasion they should be returned to the institution to which they belong in the shortest time possible.
  6. With due regard to legal requirements and UNESCO recommendations and conventions, the museum which has reason to doubt the licit quality of a previously acquired object should contact the museum or other professional organisation in the country of origin with a view to examining, in each particular case, the steps which should be taken to best preserve the interests of both parties.
  7. If a museum is offered objects, the licit quality of which it has reason to doubt, it will contact the competent authorities of the country of origin in an effort to help this country safeguard its national heritage.
  8. Gifts and bequests should only be accepted with a proviso that in the event of any object proving to have been illicitly exported from another country the authorities of the museum should be empowered to take action as above.
  9. Museums of those countries which, by virtue of political or economic circumstances hold an important part of the cultural property of countries which were not in a position to safeguard their cultural heritage adequately, should remind their authorities and collectors that they have a moral duty to assist in the future development of museums in these countries.
  10. The museums of any country which bind themselves to follow the ethical rules and the practical proposals formulated in Paragraphs 1 to 19 of this document, will agree to offer each other preferential treatment in all professional activities, compatible with the existing laws.

PROFESSIONAL DECISIONS (Some museum policy example)

The University of Pennsylvania Museum - April 1, 1970

The curatorial Faculty of the University Museum today reached the unanimous conclusion that they would purchase no more art objects or antiquities for the Museum unless the objects are accompanied by a pedigree - that is, information about the different owners of the object, place of origin, legality of export, and other data useful in each individual case. The information will be made public. This decision was recommended by the Director of the Museum, Froelich Rainey and also by the Chairman of the Board of Managers, Howard C. Petersen.

It is the considered opinion of the University Museum group of archaeologists and anthropologists who work in many countries throughout the world that import controls in the importing countries will be no more effective than the export controls in the exporting countries. Probably the only effective way to stop this wholesale destruction of archaeological sites is to regulate the trade in cultural objects within each country just as most countries in the world today regulate domestic trade in foodstuffs, drugs, securities, and other commodities. The looting of sites is naturally done by the nationals of each country and the illicit trade is carried out by them and by the nationals of many countries. Hence the preservation of the cultural heritage for mankind as a whole is, in fact, a domestic problem for all nations.

Harvard University Museums - June 21, 1971

Directors of major Harvard collections of artworks and antiquities have proposed future guidelines to maintain "the integrity of Harvard's collecting policy." Their recommendations of general principles to govern acquisition are, in summary,

That the museum officer responsible for making an acquisition or who will have custody of the acquisition should assure himself that the University can acquire valid title to the object in question, meaning that the circumstances of the transaction or knowledge of the object's provenance must be such as to give adequate assurance that the seller or donor has valid title to convey.

That in making a significant acquisition, the curator should have reasonable assurance that the object has not, within a recent time, been illegally exported from its country of origin.

That the University will not acquire objects that do not meet the foregoing tests. If appropriate, the same tests should be taken into account in determining whether to accept loans.

If the University should in the future come into possession of an object that can be demonstrated to have been exported in violation of the principles expressed above, the University should, if legally free to do so, seek the return of the object to the donor or vendor, and take responsible steps to cooperate in the return of the object to its country of origin.



Regulation: Code for the Protection of Antiquities in Afghanistan (1958)

Summary definition: national antiquities are defined as all artistic relics and monuments, moveable or immoveable, dating prior to 1748, including all articles of historic or prehistoric value and any natural objects modified by human agency before the above date.

Ownership: All antiquities, known or concealed including those in private possession, belong ultimately to the State and are registered on an official inventory. The State maintains the right to expropriate any antiquity for the purposes of care or collection and all rights to replication, photographing and publication of any antiquity.

Field research: A permit is required for all field research. Permits are granted for scientific researches only, the conditions of which are enumerated by the law of 1958. All foreign research parties must be accompanied by two representatives of the Department of Antiquities and must carry out their work within a limited time after the granting of the permit.

Exportation: All exportation of antiquities, including temporary exportation, is forbidden without a permit. Conditions for obtaining a permit are set by the law of 1958. Only privately-owned, registered antiquities may be sold or exported. The Director-General of Antiquities may deny permission for export of any antiquity and acquire it for the State, paying the owner its declared price.

Commerce: Dealers in antiquities must be licensed and must maintain a register of transactions and possessions. Traffic in unregistered antiquities is forbidden. Sale of immoveable antiquities may take place only under auspices of the State. The State maintains rights of pre-emption to any antiquity which undergoes sale.

Penalties: Penalties for infractions are administered by the law of 1958, and include fine, imprisonment, and confiscation of all objects involved.

Applications for permits to:
The Directorate-General of Museums and Preservation of Antiquities in Afghanistan KABUL

National archaeological museum: Da Kabul Museum Darul-Aman KABUL

At present no national Museums Association or lCOM. National Committee exists.


L. Cahen, Directeur, Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren (Belgique).

A. Baghli, Directeur des Musées Nationaux, Alger (Algérie).
T. Hoving, Director. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (U.S.A.).
H. Lehmann, Sous-Directeur, Musée de l'Homme, Paris (France).
S. Lorentz, Dyrektor, Muzeurn Narodowe, Warszawa (Pologne).
J.L. Lorenzo, Jefe, Departamento de Prehistoria Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico (Mexique).
S. Naqvi, Superintendent, National Museum of Pakistan, Karachi (Pakistan).
R. Nunoo, Director, Ghana National Museum & Monuments, Accra (Ghana).
F.G. Rainey, Director, University Museum, Philadelphia (U.S.A.).
X. de Salas, Subdirector, Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Espagne).



Updated: 11 July 2005