While I read a number of political sites online, I rarely bother anymore with one of the biggest, Daily Kos. In part it's because of the truly horrible look and poor functionality of the site, in part it's because, several years ago when I did used to check it on it from time to time, I finally decided to stop reading a a website that managed to be wrong about every political prediction it made. Its track record on that score may have improved since, but reading this post today (via Culturegrrl) reminded me of another reason why I stopped reading: the constant hyping of and heavy breathing over every public event and bit of news to fit them into some elaborate fantasy of how it's all really gonna hit the fan now! It really didn't matter if, in any given instance, there really was some substance to the allegations or theories under consideration, everything needed to be amped up to some level of world-historical malfeasance.
S o it is here. None of us really know what the situation is with the four museums raided by federal agents in California, or in what further turns the story may hold. But while inflated values of museum donations would be a valid inquiry for the feds, Lee's right that the responsibility in that case lies with the donor and the appraiser. Even in the case of a donation that requires IRS form 8283 (warning: .pdf), the museum's legal involvement only goes so far as verifying that it is a qualified charitable organization, that it will file IRS form 8282 with the government and the donor if it gets ride of the donation within three years, and if it intends to use the gift for an unrelated use. It may be taken as implicit in doing so that the museum is also acknowledging that it has, in fact, received the gift, but that's it. As the form even notes at one point, the museum's answers do not indicate any sort of stand on the question of the appraised fair market value--that's not the organization's responsibility.
Now, as it happens, it is possible that, if a curator or some other relevant staff of a museum knew that the institution was accepting gifts that had received above-market values and was somehow colluding in that process, that person might find themselves exposed in some way. There would be more needed, I think, to show some sort of legal liability, but that would be something a federal investigation would want to look into. That still wouldn't mean there was an institutional issue--no one is expected or required to look into these kinds of appraisal values. But you would expect an investigator to check it out, to knock and listen for a hollow sound. That's not enough for the excitable writer at Daily Kos, however, who envisons this as the museum world's "worst nightmare," the equivalent of bond insurers whose wrongdoings threaten an entire financial sector. May I suggest that it doesn't quite reach that level? It's even more amusing to read the comments, in which the author, a self-styled museum watchdog (author of a book on the subject, no less), has the basics of standard museum accessioning policies explained to him--evidently it's not a subject he actual knew much about before sounding off on it. And then there's this bit, my favorite, the attempt to harnass his readers' cynicism into thinking that the whole museum game must be a scam:
If I were the undercover agent involved in collecting evidence (a highly credentialed and experienced woman according to the warrants), and I had a chance to prove a museum had overvalued donations with malice aforethought I wouldn’t simply turn up with sirens wailing, I’d have a goddam band. I mean, when Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gives, as a full explanation for acquiring a 45 million Madonna, "We just have to have this," don’t you feel like bringing him down to the precinct house for a friendly chat?
I submit that if an undercover agent presumed to try that with de Montebello he'd swiftly find himself looking for ways to abase himself apologizing while his superiors considered what punishment would not be too good for him. The Madonna to which the writer refers is the Metropolitan's Duccio, a purchase rather than gift and not subject to any of the kinds of tax considerations as in the California investigation. At the time of the purchase de Montebello of course gave far more extensive and cogent reasons for making the acquisition than the sneer above grants him, but I've no doubt he'd greet any such investigator's questions about it with a chilly reply noting that what paintings the Metropolitan bought with its acquisition funds was its own damn business--and he'd be right, too.
Lastly, I'll note that the the publisher's page for the author's book describes him as drawing on "nine years at the Guggenheim Museum" to back up his criticisms. On his own page, we learn that those nine years were spent "as a Gallery Lecturer, an independent contractor on call to talk about Contemporary Art, Chinese Art, African Art, architectural models, motorcycles, Armani clothes, Vaseline and just about anything else Krens qualified as Art." What a surprise he actually doesn't know how museums work. His next line, the flippant question--"So why not play the expert on the Museum itself, and museums in general?"--if answered correctly, could have spared him some embarrassment: because playing an expert doesn't make one so.