Found in Collections:

A Reference Guide for Reconciling Undocumented Objects in Historical Museums

Beginning the Process

Why do this?

You may want or need to take on the FIC reconciliation process if you are doing any of the following:

What to Consider

When you find undocumented objects in your institution, there are things to consider before accessioning or removing them from the collections. The following four steps offer a starting point to begin thinking about your FIC objects in terms of their unique qualities.8 Once considering these fundamental factors, the reconciliation process can begin. As you will see, FIC objects are best addressed on an individual, case-by-case basis.

8 This section is closely based on a handout that was drafted for a session at the 2001 AAM conference in St. Louis, MO. The session was entitled "Found in Collection: Recurring Nightmare or Golden Opportunity?" Permission to use granted by author.

Determine the object's status (as best you can).
Assess the following
  • The extent to which an object is missing documentation
  • Information about where it was physically found, may help hasten the reconciliation process.
For example:
  • The object was found in collections area and has an accession number and there is no standard Deed of Gift but there is some evidence of DONOR.
  • The object was found in collections area and has an accession number and there is no standard Loan Agreement but there is some evidence of LENDER.
  • The object was found in a collections area and has an accession number but is lacking other in formation.
  • The object was found in a collections area and does not have an accession number and does not have any information about DONOR or LENDER but you think the object is either a donation or loan because:

    It is grouped with like objects

    It is similar in use/history as other objects

    It is located or stored in a particular area of the museum

    There is a note with it

  • The object was found in a collections area and is missing all documentation.
  • The object was found in a non-collections area and is similar to other objects in the collecti on.
  • The object was found in a non-collections area and is not similar to any other objects in the collection.
After determining the object's status consider these:
  • Is object is relevant to your museum's collecting mission?
  • What is the object's physical condition?
  • What is object's monetary value?
  • What is the object's value, either scientific, scholarly, historic, aesthetic for any institut n?
  • Is object is of Native American origin?
  • Does the object contain materials derived from a threatened or endangered species?
If necessary, decide on a method of acquisition or disposition:
  • Do you want to keep the object, and:

    Add it to the permanent collection,

    Add it to education or teaching collection, or

    Loan it to other museums?

  • Do you want to get rid of the object, and:

    Sell it commercially,

    Sell it to another museum,

    Trade it with another museum,

    Give it to another museum,

    Give it to another non-profit organization (school, human services organization, art center), or

    Throw it away?

Consider the laws (if applicable):
  • Is your museum in a state with museum-specific old loan legislation?
  • Does your old loan legislation make provisions for reconciling undocumented objects?
  • Is your museum in a state without museum-specific old loan legislation?
  • Does your museum have access to legal counsel?

When you begin reconciling your FIC objects, there are several places to locate possible information about the objects.

Ways you can find information about FIC objects are:


If you decide to accession an undocumented object into the collection, consider assigning it a number unique to FIC objects. Using a unique number ensures that the object can be tracked easily and that, should the object's original accession number surface at some point, the FIC number can be retired without creating a gap in the standard accession number sequence. You can also add a flag in your collections management database that identifies the object as FIC. Whatever system you choose, make sure the number is unique, unlike any of your museum's other numbering schemes, and be consistent.

To number your FIC objects try using a:
Unique numerical designation
For example, all FIC objects found each year will be assigned:
  • The first accession of the year: 2003.001.001-, 2004.001.001-
  • A larger lot number than is possible to reach in a given year 2003.800.001-, 2004.800, 001-
  • A yearly number which, because of your institution's date of founding, would be impossible to have, i.e. 1950.001.001- if your museum was founded sometime after 1950.
Alphabetical prefix before the standard trinomial system
For example
  • Z.2003.001.001
  • FIC.2003.001.001
  • NN.2003.001.001
Temporary number or Inventory prefix
For example
  • TEM.2003.001.001
  • TN.2003.001.001
  • INV.2003.001.001

Flag in donor, source, or status field of your collections management database or elsewhere in the object's record.

You may decide not to accession an FIC object right away. If this is the case, and you want to assign the objects a number for in-house tracking purposes you could:

You may or may not decide to add these objects to your collections management database—this is decision dependent on your institution's individual policy.


Perhaps the most perplexing issue surrounding the reconciliation of FIC objects is what to do if your museum decides that it no longer wants the objects. Maintaining undocumented objects that do not meet the museum's mission, are inferior duplicates, are irreparably damaged, or pose a threat to the staff or permanent collection in some way, can be unnecessary and expensive. But there are currently no standard national guidelines that aid in the disposition or deaccession of these types of items. When thinking about removing FIC items from the museum, you must first understand the legal implications of the decision. After this, you can then choose the best course of action based on factors such as your state's existing museum-specific law (or lack thereof), the public relations aspects of your decision, and the amount of time and/or money your and your museum can devote to FIC reconciliation.

The Legal Dimension

In her seminal book on museum law, A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections, Marie Malaro writes that the "continued undisturbed possession [of undocumented objects] by the museum usually supports a presumption of a valid transfer of ownership,"9 with the burden of proof falling on the party disputing this presumption. However, Malaro goes on to add that, should a claimant be able to prove ownership, and "the object is no longer in the possession of the museum because the object has been given away or sold [or thrown away], and the claimant pursues his or her interest against the present holder, the museum can expect repercussions." 10

The dubious nature of undocumented objects makes it difficult for a museum to determine whether legal ownership was ever transferred from the donor to the institution. Without legal title, removing an item from the museum is a risky venture. There can be fiscal and legal ramifications to disposition or deaccession if the object was never owned by the museum to begin with, and the rightful owner returns to claim an object that has been removed. When discussing the removal of an FIC object from the museum by sale, Malaro says, "If the museum sold the object to the present holder without reservations about title and if the holder subsequently must return the object to the true owner, the museum may be forced to pay the holder the value of the object as of the date of its return."11 Likewise, Malaro describes the potential legal outcome of giving away an undocumented object by saying, "if the true owner cannot retrieve the object from the present holder or if the object has been damaged, the museum may well find itself subject to suit."12

When deciding to remove FIC objects from the museum, either by disposition or deaccession, consider the following questions and applications. Note that these are questions and suggestions that are meant as starting points. They are in no way intended to replace the help or advice of legal counsel.

9 Malaro, 355. Note: In compiling this guide, this author did not find any published legal proceedings regarding cases brought against museums by wayward owners returning to claim their objects. It is unknown whether the legal standing of either the museum or an FIC object’s rightful owner has yet been tested in a court of law.

10 Ibid., 356.

11 Ibid., 358.

12 Ibid.

Reconciliation Considerations:
Does your state have a museum-specific law regulating the disposition/deaccession of undocumented objects?

Currently, thirty-four states have museum-specific laws to assist in the acquisition and disposition of old loans and undocumented objects (note: not all laws cover both types of objects).

Does your state have a general unclaimed or abandoned property law that provides guidelines for the disposition of abandoned property?

Individual states' abandoned or unclaimed property laws, or the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act provide guidelines for the disposition of abandoned property. While not written specifically to address museum objects, these laws could be helpful.

For example:
  • The Uniform Unclaimed Property Act states that property that has been abandoned for five years or more could be reported and delivered to the government official designated as the "Administrator” for purposes of the Act. Likewise, these laws also make provisions for the disposition of property whose monetary value falls under a prescribed dollar amount.
Will there be public relations aspects to consider?

Deaccession or disposition of undocumented objects can foster bad public relations if the community thinks the museum is unjustifiably ridding itself of its heirlooms. Developing a public relations strategy is necessary regardless of the size of your museum or community.

More Recommendations
Approach disposition or deaccessioning slowly and deliberately.

Using the Beginning the Process section of this guide will help you determine what the appropriate disposition or deaccession method will be based on each FIC object. Remember that what is the most appropriate procedure for one object may not be the best for another. For example, objects of Native American origin, or objects containing natural materials may require unique disposition methods. Likewise, objects that could potentially endanger staff or the permanent collection may require more expeditious decisions. If you are uncertain as to how to proceed, set aside all your FIC objects, making a "don't know” pile from which you can reconcile objects as you have time and as you determine the best course of action for each item. Note: this suggestion is also applicable for adding items to the collection as well.

Thoroughly document FIC disposition and deaccession and be up front and honest about your decisions.

If it is determined that disposition or deaccession is the best course of action for the undocumented objects, take care to document the objects thoroughly before beginning the process. Note all pertinent information on a catalog worksheet. This information should at least include:

  • The date of disposition or deaccession
  • Any object number (if applicable)
  • An object description, including its condition
  • Object measurements
  • Disposition or deaccession method
  • Photographs of the object
  • The object's monetary value

File the worksheet systematically as you would other object-related paperwork. If done in good faith, and with the knowledge of all involved parties (this can include the community if applicable), FIC object disposition or deaccession is not something to be ashamed of or to sweep under the rug. Adhering to proper collections management policies demonstrates a dedicated effort to care for the collection in toto.

Ascertain whether the museum-specific law, or the general unclaimed or abandoned property law in your state makes provisions to start the running of a statute of limitations during which time an owner must claim the property or lose ownership rights.

To legally gain ownership of an object and perfect title, after which you can dispose of or deaccession FIC objects, consider filling out a formal affidavit and keeping it filed with your undocumented object records. Be sure to include on this affidavit:

  • The witness's connection to the museum
  • When the object was seen in the museum for the first time by the witness(es)
  • Where the object was seen for the first time by the witness(es)
  • The circumstances under which the object was seen

Supplied later in the Resources section is a sample affidavit you can personalize for your own institution.

Consider selling or giving away FIC objects under a quitclaim deed

A sale or transfer of an FIC object may be made validly under what is called a quitclaim deed. Under this type of deed, the museum holding the FIC object acknowledges that it has incomplete ownership rights. In selling or transferring the object to another institution, the transferee receives only limited rights, and in turn assumes the risk should someone later come along and attempt to claim rightful ownership. Selling under this type of deed greatly diminishes the risk involved with the disposition or deaccession of FIC objects as well as the monetary value of an object as its provenance and ownership are in question. 13

13 Ildiko P. DeAngelis, interview by author, October 2002, Orinda, CA, telephone.

Sample Newspaper Notice

Coming Soon

Preventing Future Problems

There are several things a museum can do to assure that undocumented objects do not continue to enter the institution. The following are some simple suggestions that can aid in the process:

Draft a policy regarding the resolution of FIC objects as part of your museum's overall Collections Management Policy (CMP)

Does your CMP include guidelines for resolving undocumented objects? A good policy reflects forethought of potential issues and acts as a "failsafe” measure when such issues arise.

When adapting collections management policies to address FIC issues, consider adding:

  • Clear definitions of undocumented, FIC objects, abandoned or unclaimed property—if these are the terms used at your institution
  • Accession and disposition/deaccession criteria of FIC items that consider:

    The museum's process for determining an object's owner

    The process for obtaining legal ownership rights. This will be governed by the state's museum-specific legislation (if applicable), and should include a written record of the step-by-step methods for obtaining ownership.

    Any exclusions to the previously mentioned process. For example, will the museum waive undertaking the ownership process if the object poses a hazard to the staff or the collection, is irreparably damaged, is less than an particular value?

    Consider who will determine the accession status—the museum director or administrator, the collections manager or registrar, the curator, or a combination thereof? Likewise, who will be included in the decision to remove an item from the museum—will this be one individual's decision, a group of museum personnel, or will the decision rest with a higher museum committee?

Also consider adding, either in the CMP or in a separate official document, the museum's procedural policies for addressing FIC objects. Outline in detail what these processes will be, taking care to include (as applicable): directions for assigning an object number, tracking the object, the physical numbering of the object, it cataloging, photography, and storage, updating of the collections management database, directions for the resolution of FIC objects should documentation on their true identity surface, and any approved disposition methods.

Write out instructions to all staff

If your institution accepts unsolicited objects at the front or back door, create step-by-step procedural instructions and place them in a binder at the staffed locations that service visitors. These instructions could include:

  • Collections staff phone extensions for referral
  • Sample copies of temporary gift or loan agreements for reference

Alternatively, if your institution does not accept unsolicited donations under any circumstances, provide a copy of this policy. Also, include contact phone numbers, e-mails, or business cards to refer the patron to the appropriate staff member if they wish to make an appointment to have his or her object reviewed for donation or loan.

Conduct staff training

Periodically conduct staff training that clearly explains the necessity of obtaining thorough documentation when an object enters the museum and describes how to obtain that information. Training can be formal, or informal, conducted at a dedicated session, or discussed at an all staff meeting. If warranted, special informational sessions can be conducted for visitor services personnel (both staff, volunteers, and docents) and security staff—usually the "front line” workers who initially meet anyone dropping off an object at the museum.


The following are definitions for terms used throughout this guide.

Abandoned property law:
see Unclaimed property law.
(1) An object acquired by a museum as part of is permanent collection; (2) the act of recording/processing an addition to the permanent collection (Nauert 1979); (3) one or more objects acquired at one time from one source constituting a single transaction between the museum and a source, or the transaction itself (Burcaw 1997).1
Accession number:
A control number, unique to an object, whose purpose is identification, not description (Nauert 1979).2
(1) an object that has been removed permanently from the museum collection; (2) formal removal of accessioned objects from the museum's permanent collection.3 See also Disposition.
The act of removing unaccessioned objects from the museum collection. See also Deaccession.
Found in Collections (FIC):
see Undocumented object.
Museum-specific legislation:
State legal statute that provides guidelines for the reconciliation of old loans and/or undocumented objects in museums.
Old loan:
see Unclaimed loan.
Permanent collection:
Objects that are owned by the museum, that it has the responsibility to house and care for, and that may be used as the museum sees fit—most often for exhibition, loan, or study.
For works of art and historical objects, the background and history of ownership.4
To release or relinquish a claim to; to release a claim to by deed, without covenants of warranty against adverse and paramount titles.5
The coincidence of all the elements that constitute the fullest legal right to control and dispose of property.6
Unaccessioned objects:
Objects in the possession of the museum that have not been formally added to the museum's permanent collection but still require storage and care.
Unclaimed loan:
An object that the museum records show was placed on loan for a fixed period or indefinite period, and which has not been retrieved by its owner in a timely fashion.7
Unclaimed property law:
The law in each state generally reserved for the resolution of tangible and intangible financial assets. In states without museum-specific legislation addressing undocumented objects, this law may or may not be helpful in reconciling undocumented museum objects as well. Also sometimes referred to as abandoned property law.
Undocumented object:
object in a museum's physical possession or control that is unsupported by any documentation and/or lacks sufficient evidence to prove museum ownership.

14 Rebecca A. Buck and Jean Allman Gilmore, The New Museum Registration Methods (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1998), 359.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., 362.

17 Ibid., 366

18, "quitclaim," (8 August 2003).

19 The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985), 1273.

20 Marie C. Malaro, A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press), 304.


Based on the reconciliation considerations posed in the previous section, the following resources have been compiled for ready reference.

Old loan laws by State

Provided below is the information necessary to locate the old loan law in your state. In some instances, the legislation also covers undocumented objects.

The complete wording of the specific laws is available on:

Ala. Code Section 41-6-72 [Applies only to Alabama Department of Archives and History of the State of Alabama]
Alaska Stat. 14-57-200 et seq. [applicable to undocumented objects]
Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. Sections 44-351 et seq. [applicable to undocumented objects]

Arkansas Stat. [Museum Property Act] § 13-5-1001 to 13-5-1013 [applicable to undocumented objects]

Cal. Civ. Code Sections 1899 et seq.
Colo. Rev. Stat. Sections 38-14-101 et seq.
Conn. Stat. § 11-194-11-80 to 11-194-11-89 [Section 11-82, Chapter 194] 
District of Columbia
Fla. Stat. Ann. [Title XVIII] Chapter 265.565 et seq.
Official Code of GA [Title 10, Chapter 1, Article 17b]. § 10-1-529.1-.7
Ill. Comp. Stat. [Chapter 765] 1033/1 et seq. [applicable to undocumented objects]
Ind. Code. Ann. Section 32-34-5-1 et seq. [applicable to undocumented objects]
Iowa Code Chapter 305B Sections 1-13 [applicable to undocumented objects]
Kan. Stat. Ann. 58-4001 et seq. [applicable to undocumented objects]
Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. 171.830 et seq.
La. Rev. Stat. Ann. Section 25:345 [Limited to the Louisiana State Museum]
Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. Title 27, Chapter 19, Section 601
MA General Law, Chapter 200B Sections 1-8
Mich. Comp. Laws 399.601 et seq. [applicable to undocumented objects]
Minn. Stat. Section 345.70 et seq. [applicable to undocumented objects]
Miss. Code Ann. Section 39-19-1 et seq.
Mo. Rev. Stat. Section 184-101 et seq. [applicable to undocumented objects]
Mont. Code Ann. Section 22-3-501 et seq.
Neb. Rev. Stat. Section 51-701 et seq. [applicable to undocumented objects]
Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. Section 381.009 [Limited to specified museums and historical societies]
New Hampshire
N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. [Title XVI] Section 201-E:1 et seq.
New Jersey
New Jersey Stat. § 1-11-C.46:30D-1 to 46:30D-11
New Mexico
N.M. Stat. Ann. Section 18-10-1 et seq.
New York
Education law 233-a with regard to NY state museums, Education law 233-aa with regard to property of non-NY state museums
North Carolina
N.C. Gen. Stat. Section 121-7© [Limited to state museums]
North Dakota
N.D. Cent. Code Section 47-07-14
Ohio Rev. Code Section 33.3385.01 et seq.
Okla. Stat. [Title 60] Section 683.2 [Only states that museums are not subject to the provisions of the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act]
Or. Rev. Stat. Section 358.415 et seq.
Pennsylvania Stat. § 37.304
Rhode Island
Rhode Island Stat. § 34-44.1-8
South Carolina
S.C. Code Ann. Section 27-45-10 et seq.
South Dakota
S.D. Codified Laws 43-41C-1 et seq. [Defines unclaimed property as any property held by a museum or historical society in the state which is held for ten years or more and to which no person has made claim]
Tenn. Code Ann. Section 66-29-201 et seq. [Applies to abandoned cultural property—makes no distinction between old loans and undocumented objects]
Tex. Prop. Code Ann. Section 80.001 et seq.
Utah Code 9-8-801 et seq. [A rebuttable presumption is established that any reposited materials held by a collecting institution are the property of that collecting institution.]
VT Title 27, Chapters 12-14, §§ 1151 et. seq.
Va. Code [Chapter 11.2] Section 55-210.31 et seq. [applicable to undocumented objects]
Wash. Rev. Code Section 63.26.010 et seq. [where "Property" includes all documents and tangible objects, animate and inanimate, under the care of a museum or historical society which have intrinsic scientific, historic, artistic, or cultural value.]
West Virginia
Wis. Stat. Ann. Section 171.30 et seq. [applicable to undocumented objects]
Wyo. Stat. Ann. Section 34-23-101 et seq.

If your state does not have a museum-specific law regarding undocumented objects, and you or your institution thinks it prudent to get advice before accessioning, disposing of, or deaccessioning your FIC objects, you may wish to contact your state’s unclaimed property office or the office of your state’s Attorney General for guidance.

For a directory of names and addresses for each state’s unclaimed property program
For a directory of names and addresses for each state’s Attorney General’s office

Some museum objects contain materials derived from endangered or threatened species. For information on federal laws protecting wildlife, and the possession, sale, and movement of objects containing their materials, contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [], (800) or (703) 358-2104. Supplied below are several of the acts protecting wildlife. For a complete list, see:

African Elephant Conservation Act
[16 USC 4201-4245]
Bald Eagle Protection Act
[16 USC 668]
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
Endangered Species Act
[16 USC 1531 et seq.]
The Lacey Act
[18 USC 42; 16 U.S.C. 3371-3378]
Marine Mammal Protection Act
[16 USC 1361 et seq.]
Migratory Bird Treaty Act
[16 USC 703-712]

For help regarding objects containing materials derived from endangered or threatened species, direct questions online to PERMIT-L. This is a moderated listserv, hosted by the Smithsonian Institution.

To join, send email to LISTSERV@SIVM.SI.EDU. No subject is required. In the body, issue the command: Subscribe PERMIT-L Firstname Surname [e.g., Subscribe PERMIT-L John Smith]

Does the old loan legislation (remember, in some states these laws cover undocumented objects), or unclaimed or abandoned property law in your state provide a means for triggering the running of a period in which an owner must claim the property or lose ownership? If so, you may consider starting the statute of limitations running on your undocumented object(s) by making a record of the object(s) as of the current date. The following page contains a sample affidavit form that can be modified to fit your institution’s needs.

Museum of History Affidavit Form

The following is a sample image of a Museum of History Affidavit form.

Download a PDF of this form.

Affidavit Form Sample

Found in Collections Decision Map

The following chart, or "decision map," illustrates the path an FIC object could travel to reconciliation.

Download the Decision Map

Decision Map


Decision Map

Download the Decision Map

Affidavit Form

Download the Affidavit Form

Found in Collections Thesis

Download the Entire, Original Thesis