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The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Getty Images / Heritage Images / Photo by Museum of East Asian Art

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Many years ago, I read a book called “The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund de Waal, about a netsuke collection he inherited. Netsuke is a form of Japanese ceramics noted for their delicacy, small size, and intricate detail. He wrote the book because it was a vehicle to help him answer some questions that intrigued him – he wanted to know who created each of the works, who had touched them over the 100-plus years of life they had so far, and how they had survived war and global travel to reach him.

The book is fascinating and worth the read, but – spoiler alert – these exquisite works survived because someone took great care of each work and prepared each to survive at every step on the century-long journey to him.

Most of us do not have rare or specialized collections, but many of us have things we cherish and hold dear. Some of us have works or collections that may be valuable financially, artistically, and historically, or that may simply be interesting. And for those folks, it is never too early to think about where these works are now and where these works are going as well.

For those who may be in a position to contemplate donating your works to a cultural, educational, scientific, or charitable organization – or even to a private collector – here are a few things to consider.

Enjoy these works while you can. When it comes to art and historical works, ownership is really only stewardship. And the stewardship of beautiful works or important documents or artifacts is a privilege to be enjoyed, shared, and passed on to inspire others who follow us. But during our time as “stewards,” we should savor the works, if possible. Some are too fragile or require special handling, but when that is not the case, enjoy their beauty and meaning.

Take care of the works. Each kind of work needs a particular kind of care. But some rules of thumb pertain to most works: 

* Shield your collection from direct sunlight and strong lighting.

* Avoid placing unprotected artwork directly above a working fireplace, beneath active air ducts, or in high-traffic areas.

* Maintain a steady temperature and humidity in rooms containing valuable works – 72 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity of 45 to 55 percent are generally good levels for most types of works.

* Store works properly. Avoid storing items directly on the floor, even temporarily, unless the item is meant to stand on the floor (e.g., sculptures). When placing works in storage, make sure they are wrapped and padded  fully and do not touch each other directly. Make sure works that need acid-free storage (like paintings and works on paper) use the correct storage materials.

* When in doubt, consult an expert. There are experts for every possible situation you may encounter, whether it is conservation, storage, valuation, or more. Getting good advice can make the difference in whether an individual work or a collection will be accepted through donation.

Keep track of your works. Having a good inventory that briefly describes the work(s), where you got them (provenance), dimensions, and current condition can make it much easier to engage in conversations with potential recipients. If you know the value of these works, include that as well. If not, be prepared that a donation appraisal – a specific form of appraisal – is needed as part of IRS requirements if a tax deduction is intended.

Research potential recipients and get to know their interests and needs. Today, many organizations are challenged by the demands of storage and upkeep of original works. At the same time, digitization of collections is an increasing trend. As a result, the willingness and capacity of institutions to accept donations of physical works are declining, and it can take much more time and planning to arrange for a donation to be accepted. So if you can, begin a conversation about your collection or work(s) with a representative of the organization you hope to give them to, let them learn a bit about it, and see if this is a good match for you both.

Financial donation helps, too. Because of display and upkeep costs, it helps a recipient also to receive a cash contribution to assist in the long-term care of your works. If you have the means to do this, anticipate that this will help in having your collection considered for donation. If you cannot – and many cannot – that should not prevent you from approaching a recipient, but the easier you then make the process, the more likely you will be in making a successful donation.

Donation of works and collections has become a more complex process in recent years because of many factors. You can increase the likelihood that works you own that may be of value or interest can benefit an organization important to you if you follow these steps.

If you need assistance, there are organizations that can help you, including POBA, the Appraisers Association of America, and your State Arts Council, among others.


POBA / Where The Arts Live® is a nonprofit online arts hub and resource center that displays, promotes, and preserves creative legacies; helps folks that own or manage a creative, arts, or historical legacy or collection to ensure these collections live on; and helps working artists to manage their own works for future preservation, viewing, and value. Learn more.