A Deed of Gift is the document that legally transfers ownership of an artifact from the donor to the museum. It is legal and binding, and cannot be reversed if the donor changes his or her mind after signing it. One copy is kept on file at the museum. A second copy is provided to the donor.
Before an artifact can be donated to a museum, the owner must declare that he or she is its rightful owner and is free and clear to donate it. By signing the Deed of Gift, the donor gives up all rights, including copyrights, and cannot place any restrictions on the object.
Most museums include language in the Deed of Gift that specifically states that the organization cannot promise the permanent exhibition of any object. No museum wants to be legally bound to keep an artifact on display indefinitely. A policy of changing exhibitions means the museum can and will rotate artifacts in its galleries. Not only will changing exhibitions attract new audiences, it will also allow artifacts to “rest” in storage, where they can be protected from handling and high light levels.
The Deed of Gift is also the document the donor needs to provide to the IRS if a tax deduction is being taken on the donation. Museums cannot provide appraisal values. A donor must supply the Deed of Gift AND an independent appraisal (at his or her own expense) in order to take a tax deduction.
All appraisals should be done prior to making the donation to the museum. Appraisals after the donation may be arranged by the donor at the discretion of the museum staff. It is simpler to have the appraisal done when the artifact is still in the donor’s possession. The museum is not obligated to provide access to the artifact for an appraisal after it has been donated.
The Deed of Gift prevents future misunderstandings that can sometimes occur with a donor’s heirs, particularly if the donation is valuable. For example, a donor may come to the museum and say, “My grandfather LOANED this artifact to you. He did not intend to DONATE it.” The Curator only needs to pull the signed and dated Deed of Gift to prove that the artifact does, in fact, belong to the museum. Loans are handled with a separate set of paperwork and should be for a specific period of time only. Check your state’s abandoned property laws for when an artifact that has not been picked up after a stated loan period will legally become the property of the museum.