RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Undocumented and unclaimed items in collections - 09/29/2021
We have a couple of questions relating to Section 233-A of NYS Education Law, the "Museum Pro...
Posted: Wednesday, September 29, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

We have a couple of questions relating to Section 233-A of NYS Education Law, the "Museum Property Law". The law as written seems to only address totally undocumented objects and recent loans, but it also seems to have clear implications for the many partially documented objects and very old loans we have to deal with. As we all have slightly different ideas of how to stretch the law to fit our situation, I thought it would be best to get a legal opinion rather than trusting our common sense.

1) Regarding “undocumented property”: How much documentation is required for a donation to have sufficient written proof of legal transfer of ownership?

In the collections, we have a significant number of donated items which do not appear to have deeds of gift clearly transferring title from the original owner to the museum. They do appear in our ledgers along with the names of their donors, and sometimes have information confirming the link between donor and object on a vintage card cataloguing system – however, these forms of documentation are not a contract like the deed of gift, or even a piece of correspondence that shows an intent to donate.

In your reading of the Museum Property Law, should we consider such property to be undocumented, and to require similar measures to gain title? (That is, advertisement in local papers, followed by a period of advertisement on the state comptroller’s website.) Should we follow a similar procedure as with unclaimed property, despite these items not having been intended as loans? Or can we consider them to be documented, since we know the donors, and treat them like any other object when it comes to deaccessioning.

2) Regarding “unclaimed property”: How much of an effort is considered “good faith” in seeking lenders of very old loans?

The vast majority of the items we would consider unclaimed property were lent in the 1940s-1960s. From the research we’ve done into the lenders, they appear to be deceased, and in many cases their children are also deceased.

The law is written in such a way that it seems to presume all unclaimed property is the result of a recent loan that is still technically the property of a living person, which causes us some difficulties. It presumes that sending the lender a certified letter to their last known address will notify the person who currently owns the object. However, in our situation, as the original lenders are deceased someone else would have inherited their property – and in some cases, that heir would have left it to someone else in their own will.

If we know that a lender is deceased, are we still required to send them certified letters? Are we required to seek out their next of kin, and if so, are we required to continue seeking next of kin until we find a living relative? Is seeking permission from next of kin actually counterproductive, in that it could open us up to a lawsuit from a non-next-of-kin heir?

Thank you for any assistance you can give.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

[NOTE:  For some initial background on New York's law governing museums and loaned/donated items, see https://www.wnylrc.org/ask-the-lawyer/filter/159]

On its face, NY Education Law 233-aa seems straightforward, but as the member's questions point out, it requires the consideration of a lot of details.

To answer the question while addressing those details, I'm going to use a story to give my answers some focus.

The Story

When I was in third grade,[1] a schoolmate brought her grandfather's shillelagh,[2] a family heirloom from Ireland, into school for "Show & Tell."

Before and after our "Show and Tell," the shillelagh was kept in my classmate's locker.

You probably know where this story is going.  At some point after "Show and Tell," the shillelagh went missing. 

I can still remember my teacher making the announcement, casting a discerning eye at my fellow third-graders, trying to pick out the criminal.[3]

To the best of my knowledge, that family heirloom has never been found.[4]  But because I am the sort of person who is very into both heirlooms and true crime mysteries, every few years, I find myself wondering where it is.[5]

But let's pretend that sometime in 1981, whoever took it that day held onto it for a bit, and then-- realizing they had no need for a hot shillelagh--hastily left it on a museum's doorstep with a note reading: "I thought you could use this, so here you go.  Sincerely, I.M. Purloiner." 

And to make my scenario work, let's further pretend the museum, finding an antique shillelagh to be within the scope of its mission,[6] accessions the item into its collection, and never hears from "I.M.  Purloiner" again.

And with that scenario to work with, let's answer these questions.

How much documentation is required for a donation to have sufficient written proof of legal transfer of ownership?

If a museum has any contemporaneous records showing that an item, when dropped off, was a "donation," unless there are circumstances to the contrary, I am comfortable saying the museum can regard the item as its own property.

In the member's scenario, that record would be a routine practice of recording items as either loans or donations.  In my scenario, there isn't quite enough (nothing shows an intent to transfer the ownership).

Of course, nowadays, there are very precise requirements for ensuring donors are aware of the terms of a gift to a museum.  For example, Education Law 233-aa (3) requires:

Prior to the acquisition of property by gift, a museum shall inform a donor or prospective donor of the provisions of this section and shall provide a donor or prospective donor with a written copy of its mission statement and collections policy, which shall include policies and procedures of the museum related to deaccessioning.

But what about, as the member writes, documentation of items from before the law was in effect?[7]  Again: if a museum can show a customary practice of accepting donations by recording them in a particular way, I believe it can make a compelling case that the title (ownership) of the piece was transferred to the museum at the time of the intake.

I base this conclusion, in part, on the law's definition of a "loan" and a "lender":

The term “loan” means a deposit of property with a museum not accompanied by a transfer to such museum of title to the property.

The term “lender” means a person legally entitled to, or claiming to be legally entitled to, property held by the museum or, if such person is deceased, the legal heirs of such person.

That said, if there is no record of how an item was accepted (as either a donation or loan), the only presumption I can endorse is that the item was a loan.

Which brings us to the member’s next question: In the collections, we have a significant number of donated items which do not appear to have deeds of gift clearly transferring title from the original owner to the museum. ...  In your reading of the Museum Property Law, should we consider such property to be undocumented, and to require similar measures to gain title?

Building on the idea that if there is clear evidence that the property was accepted as a gift--even if not through a "deed of gift" or other typical instrument--I would regard it not as "undocumented" (which means there is no reliable information as to the lender or donor), but as a donation.  On the flip side, if accepted as a loan, I would again not regard it as "undocumented," but rather, as "unclaimed" property, as contemplated by Section 7 of the Education Law 233-aa:

Unless there is a written loan agreement to the contrary, and notwithstanding any other provision of law regarding abandoned or lost property, a museum that has made a good faith and reasonable search for the identity and last known address of the lender from the museum records and other records reasonably available to museum staff may terminate a loan for unclaimed property in its possession in accordance with the provisions of this subdivision. [emphasis added]

Which brings us to the member's next question:  Regarding “unclaimed property”: How much of an effort is considered “good faith” in seeking lenders of very old loans?

There is no magic formula for "good faith" (in this context), but in general, if a museum feels it can show it has used all available resources, without undo time and expense, it should be able to demonstrate it.

The trick to "good faith" is being able to show a meaningful, genuine effort.  Does it mean a museum has to hire a private investigator to establish the identity of a person who left a shillelagh on its porch in 1981? No. But if a known lender with a known address is recently deceased, and a list of heirs can be obtained from the Surrogate’s Court in their county (for free or a nominal copying fee), should that be done? Yes.

This brings us to these final questions:

If we know that a lender is deceased, are we still required to send them certified letters?

If it is known that the lender is deceased, the letter should be addressed to their heir, if possible. 

Are we required to seek out their next of kin, and if so, are we required to continue seeking next of kin until we find a living relative?

It is not the next-of-kin, but the "heir" who should be sought (the terms are not synonymous[8]). 

How does a museum identify a deceased lender’s heir?  That information can "reasonably" be sought in the Surrogate's Court in the county of the lenders' last known residence.  And if the information isn't there, I feel comfortable saying that a documented attempt to locate it there is all that is needed to show "good faith."

Is seeking permission from next of kin actually counterproductive, in that it could open us up to a lawsuit from a non-next-of-kin heir?

As I say, because of how 233-aa defines "lender," it is not the next-of-kin who should be sought, but the "heir."   Of course, doing the right thing is never a guarantee that a museum won't be sued...but if there is a legal action, or threat of one, efforts to find the "heir" will establish a "good faith" attempt to follow the law, which will position a museum to legally defend its actions.

All of which brings me back to my classmate's missing shillelagh.  If the museum in my scenario decided it wasn't comfortable with the manner in which it was acquired, and wanted to firm up its claim to the item (or return it to its owner), that is when a museum can follow the process for "undocumented property" and publish a notice meeting the requirements of 233-aa.

I hope this walk through the details (with a shillelagh), has been helpful.



[1] Circa 1981.

[2] What's a shillelagh (pronounced "shill-lay-lee")?  It's an Irish walking stick; for more info, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shillelagh_(club).

[3] It was not me.

[4] I resisted the urge to jump on Facebook and find my former classmate to ask.  What a random, creepy question to ask after 30 years of silence.

[5] If by any chance you are reading this in the Central New York area and happen to know, please send me a note at adams@losapllc.com.

[6] The Museum of Wooden Tools?  The Museum of Walking Sticks?  The Museum of Irish Implements?

[7] 2008.

[8] This is why it is important to try and get the information from the Surrogate's Court.  A person may die and deliberately disinherit their next-of-kin, while designating other heirs.

 

Tags: Archives, Donations, Historical societies and museums, Special collections

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