Do art museums own their collections, and if they do, can they be loaned out to other museums for a price? These questions have come up routinely through the years. In 1975, when Thomas Hoving, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sought a controversial sale of Met works, his famed defense was, “Every work of art is entirely owned by the trustees.”

He was so wrong that Francis T.P. Plimpton, a Met trustee and chair of New York City’s Board of Ethics commented, if Hoving said such a thing, “He’s out of his mind.”  The institution is state-owned.


New Yorkers own the art.

A more famous case in the who-owns-what part of this story is the ongoing fight over the British Museum’s holding of 253 Elgin Marbles, which are said to be its biggest visitor draw. The sculptures got into the Brit’s collection when the Seventh Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, lifted them from the Parthenon in Athens in 1801 with a disputed permit and peddled the sculptures to the British treasure-house. Greece has been trying to get its marbles back for a lot of years.

David vs. Goliath

Another art collection in dispute is Michelangelo’s “David.” In 2010 a lawyer for the Italian government argued that the statue was the property of Rome, not Florence even though the Cathedral of Florence commissioned the sculpture more than 500 years ago.

Reportedly when Florence moved the weather-beaten statue indoors in 1873, the mayor charged the cost of the move to Rome, saying the statue belonged to Italy. So far, “David” is staying put.

But now Rome is asking the should-art-museums-lend-their-collection question of a museum in Monterchi, Italy, a tiny town of less than 2000 some three hours away from Rome by train. Rome’s celebrated Capitoline Museum wants to know if Monterchi will lend its prized Renaissance painting, “Madonna Del Parto” by Piero Della Francesca.


The City Council doesn’t want to, even though the tiny town is poor and could use the money to house the prized painting in a better place than the schoolhouse it hangs in now.  

“We cannot lose possession of the Madonna, even for a minute,” Alfredo Romanelli, the mayor of Monterchi, told the press. “Anyone who wants to see the Madonna has to come to Monterchi.”

And therein lies the rub. The town gets about 30,000 visitors a year to look at the painting. The fear is that once the painting leaves town, it won’t come back.


Historically, money has driven art museums to both lend and borrow art. Hoving who negotiated the King Tut loan for the Met from Egypt, acknowledged in his 1993 memoir “Making the Mummies Dance” that his big reason to borrow contents of the tomb was to make money.

High art is hard coin, even in the rarified air of museums.