Auctions Deaccessioning Museums Australia

Mystery surrounds relic of British Empire due to be auctioned in Australia

Object came from British Empire and Commonwealth Museum’s collection

A piece of the tree under which Robert O'Hara Burke was buried in Cooper's Creek, South Australia. Photo: © 2014 LiveAuctioneers

An object has surfaced on the market in Australia that came from the collection of the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM) in Bristol. The museum in the west of England, which closed to the public in 2008, was at the centre of a deaccessioning scandal that emerged three years ago.

The artefact is a piece of the tree under which the 19th-century Irish explorer Robert O’Hara Burke, who led the first expedition to try and cross Australia from south to north, was buried. It has been consigned to Mossgreen auctioneer in Armadale, Melbourne (est A$60,000-A$80,000, $56,000-$74,000); the sale is due to take place on 25 August.

Mossgreen states the object’s provenance as “the Imperial Institute (later the Commonwealth Institute), UK; British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol, inventory number 272; deaccessioned to a private collection, UK, 2009”.

The BECM, which opened in 2002 and closed to the public in 2008, had a collection of around 553,000 items, including artefacts from the Commonwealth Institute’s collection, which grew out of the Victorian-era Imperial Institute and has since become the Commonwealth Education Trust. BECM was the only permanent museum in the country that charted the story and legacy of Britain’s Empire.

We reported in September 2011 that at least 150 items left the museum’s collection, taken away for sale by the London-based ethnographic art dealer Douglas Barrett.

The museum’s founding director, Gareth Griffiths, left in February 2011; the chairman of the museum’s trustees, Neil Cossons, gave the reason for his dismissal as “the unauthorised disposal of museum objects”. Griffiths subsequently released a statement through his solicitors saying that any objects were disposed of with the knowledge and agreement of the trustees and receipts were fully audited. An investigation into the deaccession of objects from the BECM was dropped by Avon and Somerset police in early 2012.

How the fragment of the tree entered the BECM collection is unclear. The Art Newspaper understands that the relic was not part of the Commonwealth Institute collection that was donated to BECM in 2003. The object may have been deaccessioned in the early- to mid-20th century by the Imperial Institute.

BECM’s collection was given to Bristol City Council in 2012. A spokesman for Bristol Museum and Art Gallery said that an inventory of the collection it received is underway, and that the museum is seeking funding for archivists who will work on the Empire and Commonwealth museum’s extensive holdings of documents.

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22 Aug 14
14:58 CET


Would Sir Neil care to offer his perspective on this? Is the Bristol Museum considering the question of title and the possibility of acquiring this treasure which may well be rightfully theirs?

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