Using Virginia's Abandoned Property Law
Does your museum have any abandoned property?
(Note: there were some changes to the code in October of 2019, so this is a new number, but the essential elements of the law have remained the same)
One of the things most of Virginia’s museums have in common is that they have “found in collection” items that were acquired decades ago, with no paperwork or provenance. Some of these items need to be deaccessioned, others added to a museum’s official collection—but neither of those things can happen until you assume legal title to the item. Like similar laws in 35 other states, Virginia’s Abandoned Property statute passed in 2002 with VAM’s help, lays out the steps any museum can take in order to do that.
While the law has been around for more than a decade, most museums in the Commonwealth still haven’t made use of it. After talking with several VAM member museums who have recently put the law to work for them, here are some of the basics that might help other members demystify the process and start talking about it at their sites.
The law provides specific steps to clear title to abandoned property. The first thing to keep in mind is that a museum must be able to prove that they have held the item for at least 5 years before the process can begin. As a way to make this easier, make sure that any undocumented items in your collection, if they don’t already have a date on them, put a date on them now, so the clock can start.
Once you decide which items qualify for this process, and select the ones you want to include, your next step is to list them in the newspaper. You can use your local newspaper (for abandoned loans, the law does specify you should use a newspaper close to the location of the original owner), but you should ensure the newspaper has official legal notices; you should get the paper to provide you with a certificate proving that you published these items in legal notices, and not all papers can provide that. While it might seem like an online posting makes more sense in this day and age, the law specifies a physical newspaper, so be sure you don’t cut corners there to save funds. The ads should list the items (there is some guideline in the law for what needs to be listed, but the general advice is to keep the item descriptions vague, so you can minimize any fraudulent claims).
The notice you publish should be repeated twice; once a week for two weeks. This isn’t inexpensive; the museums I talked to include these ads in their collections budget for the year. Depending on what paper you use and how many items you have to list, you could be looking at $1,000 or more per ad.
After the second appearance of the ad, the wait time in the law is 65 days. If no one comes forward, your last step is to place the same ad two more times (again, once a week for two weeks), and state that your museum has now claimed title to all of these items.
But what happens if someone makes a claim on any of these items? None of the museums I talked to have had a claim filed, but they suggest you prepare (hopefully you have a lawyer on your board who can help you with a procedure for this) ahead of time just in case. The Valentine created a claim form to help reunite people with items they think might be theirs. It is listed on their website, along with a description of the process the museum goes through. https://thevalentine.org/collections/undocumented-property/
Another aspect of this useful law is a process for dealing with abandoned loans; if you have loan paperwork, but can’t reach the lender or their heirs, this can help you clear that loan. Like the rest of the law, the process is time-consuming, and is not inexpensive. But completing this process can give you closure to these frustrating collection items, particularly if the item is large and occupies a fair amount of your limited storage space.
As you consider using the law at your museum, you might find you need advice or support from others doing the same thing. VAM wants to help you connect with each other and share resources, so if you are currently working on a project, or are thinking about it, contact us so we can build a network of collections professionals working on this.