Valuing Your Collection

In this guest post, Freda Matassa, Director of Matassa Toffolo, talks about the background to her new book, Valuing Your Collection: a practical guide for museums, libraries and archives.

When I was writing this book, I thought it would be of limited interest and no-one was more surprised than I was when it sold out at the book launch. In fact, it has caused quite a stir, with one curator saying, “This is the book we have been waiting for!”.

Valuing Your Collection book launch photo
Valuing Your Collection book launch. Photo courtesy author.

It was written on the back of a 2011-2012 study on the high cost of insurance for exhibitions following various EU initiatives to encourage lending across Europe. The cost of insurance was listed as a major barrier to collection loans and, consequently, the EU commissioned a report into how museums assign values and what methodology they use. Some of the findings were unexpected, particularly that museum professionals show considerable reluctance when asked to assign values to objects in their collections. Feelings ranged from “It’s not my job” to “I don’t have the expertise”, and many felt that items in publicly-held collections shouldn’t be valued at all.

The book raises all the doubts, questions and difficulties of whether to assign values or not. Cultural significance, rather than financial worth, is often regarded as the only criterion of assessing value. Many museums, particularly local authority museums, fear that putting a price tag on items may alert councils to the unrealised assets they hold and may lead to the risk of deaccession, disposal and sale.

We are well served in the UK by our Government Indemnity Scheme but this does not address the question of insuring our collections in situ. Most museums do not insure their entire collection, or if they do, it’s for a global sum with a first-loss ceiling. Sometimes known as a deductible, this is an upper limit on a small part of the insured value that a policy will not pay out. The insured is expected to absorb this first loss.

Many others choose to insure only a few specified key items, those that are deemed of greatest worth in terms of research or visitor attraction. During the research for the book, I visited several collections and interviewed staff about their policy on valuation. No-one had an actual written policy but some, notably archive collections, had a structured response to valuation, with curators sharing information before coming to a joint decision. Many of these case studies are included in the book.

While working with the Natural History Museum on due diligence, I realised the difficulty of assigning values to objects with little or no market value. Sarah Long and Clare Valentine at the NHM were partners in organising a conference on valuation, “For what it’s worth: essentials of collections valuation” in April 2016. At the conference, curators, dealers and auctioneers gave details on the specific things they look for when determining a value. Many of these insights have been included in the book.

Finally, in order to encourage curators to make a start, I devised a series of templates that they can work through, listing specific questions for different types of materials. For example, if you are trying to come up with a value for a scientific instrument, apart from questions of rarity and condition, you could ask, “Is it associated with a famous scientist?” and these answers will help you to decide whether the object may be of high value, having been connected with an important scientific discovery.

Overall, it was very enjoyable to visit and interview many collection managers and curators throughout the country, to hear examples of best practice and to gain insights into the specific aspects of various types of object that affect financial value. I hope that the book will act as a useful guide to all museum staff who are asked to assign values and will give them confidence in their own knowledge and expertise.

Valuing Your Collection: a practical guide for museums, libraries and archives. Facet Publishing, 2017.