Abandoned Property

Object # 90.1. Found in collection.

Object # 90.1. Found in collection.

The Woodstock History Center is continuing through the process of inventorying its collection and determining ownership of all objects. Where there is a question about the ownership of an object, the Society will follow the “abandoned property” process.

What does “found in collection” mean?

An object is labeled “found in collection” if we have possession/control of it, but we do not have documentation about the object being donated to the museum.

Where we have documentation, an object can be “accessioned” by the History Center and accepted into the collection.

Without clear documentation, the History Center's legal ownership of the object may be called into question.

Why does the Society have undocumented artifacts?

Since the History Center began operation in 1943 (under the name of Woodstock Historical Society), it has collected artifacts from many sources. The collection contains thousands of artifacts. Many of these were received with little or no documentation, during a time when collection standards were not as comprehensive as today.

Why is documentation of legal ownership important?

Museums have an obligation to maintain records about the history of objects (“provenance”), which can be critical to understanding their importance. With clear title, the WHC has the authority to accession, deaccession, display, loan, use for educational purposes, conserve, and repair objects. Without that clear title, the WHC cannot take any of these actions.

Only recently has the scope of the collection been changed to focus on the Dana Family, 19th, 20th, and 21st century life in Woodstock  and surrounding towns, (living, working, governing), the built environment of the village, individuals and their ideas and contributions, tourism, and planning, land use and conservation. In the first fifty years of its existence, the WHC literally accepted anything “old” from Woodstock and neighboring towns. Many of these objects may no longer be pertinent to our current scope of collections. If we want to “deaccession” an object, we must have clear title.

How does a museum obtain clear title to an object?

In 2008, Vermont passed Vermont Statutes Title 27: Chapter 12 – Museum Property, which sets forth the specific steps required for a museum to acquire clear title to objects for which it has insufficient documentation of ownership.

A museum shall mail by certified mail, return receipt requested, written notice to the last known owner at the most recent address. If the museum has no record of the owner or owner’s address, or the museum has not received written proof of receipt of the mailed notice within 30 days after mailing, the museum shall publish at least one notice each month for three consecutive months in the principal newspaper of general circulation in the county where the museum is located and the county of the last known address of the owner.

The notice must be entitled “Notice of Abandonment”, and contain a clear description of the property; the last known name and address of the owner; a request that any person who has any knowledge of the whereabouts of the owner provide written notice to the museum; the name and address of the museum; the name, address, and contact information of the person to be contacted regarding the property; and a statement that if written assertion of title is not presented by the owner to the museum within 180 days after the date of the final published notice, the property shall be considered abandoned or donated and shall become the property of the Society.

In accordance with the law, the WHC will begin placing notices in the Valley News. When someone comes forward with a claim, it is the responsibility of the claimant to prove ownership. If we are presented with proof of ownership, then we will request a signed Deed of Gift or return the item, as the donor wishes. If no one comes forward, then the Society will have clear title once the noticing process is completed.

Why is the newspaper advertisement entitled “Notice of Abandonment”?

The Vermont Statute requires us to use this language. Unfortunately, this can cause people to think that the museum is abandoning the property. However, the language essentially refers to the previous owner’s abandoning the property—donating it—to the museum. Acquiring clear title does not mean that the WHC has made a decision about the final disposition of the object. It only means that the Society is using this process to establish ownership.

What happens when an object is deaccessioned?

Deaccessioning does not usually mean an object is being thrown away. For example, an object may be moved to an education collection, to be used for hands-on activities, where the objective is no longer permanent preservation of the item.

Per the WHC's Collections Management Policy (dated June 2016), an object can be deaccessioned only after a recommendation by the Director to the Collections Committee, a recommendation by the Committee to the Board of Trustees, and a majority vote of the Board. Once deaccessioned, an object can only be disposed of in the following manner:

  1. Transfer or sale to another museum or non-profit organization where the object might be more appropriate.

  2. Use for tours, demonstrations, education, discovery corners, conservation practice, etc.

  3. Return to the donor, with notice to take appropriate steps if the donor originally took a tax deduction on the object.

  4. Sale at a public auction, other public sale, or event. If the sale is by means of a sealed bid, there must be a minimum of three bids.

  5. Destruction of hazardous or badly damaged objects.