Acquisition and disposal policy

May 2010

The collection

Under the terms of the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 the Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery maintain a collection of portraits in all media of the most eminent persons in British history from the earliest times to the present day. These media include paintings, drawings, miniatures, engravings, sculpture, photographs, photographic negatives, film, digital works and new media.


As laid down in the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 the Trustees acquire, whether by purchase, exchange or gift, portraits in all media of the most eminent persons in British history from the earliest times to the present day and of other works of art relevant to portraiture. In addition they commission portraits of eminent British persons, as well as acquire documents relating to portraiture. In acquiring documents the Gallery is guided by the 'Code of Practice on Archives for Museums and Galleries in the United Kingdom' (3rd ed., 2002).

As laid down at the Trustees' second meeting on 16 February 1857 it is 'the rule... to look to the celebrity of the person represented' in the first place; the Trustees 'attempt to estimate that celebrity without any bias to any political or religious party. Nor will they consider great faults and errors, even though admitted on all sides, as any sufficient ground for excluding any portrait which may be valuable as illustrating the civil, ecclesiastical, or literary history of the country'.

It has been a central concern of the Trustees since the foundation of the Gallery that portraits acquired should in some way be authentic records of the appearance of the sitter, ideally done from life and in any case not a modern copy. The Trustees also have regard to the importance of the image, the significance of the artist and the value of the portrait to the Gallery's educational and interpretative work in the appreciation and understanding of portraiture.

When considering a potential acquisition due account is taken of the Gallery's responsibility to ensure adequate conservation, documentation and proper use, and takes into account limitations imposed by such factors as staffing, storage, conservation resources and display space. Due account is also taken of the collecting policies of other museums, both national and non-national, in order to avoid unnecessary duplication and waste of resources. 

The Gallery does not acquire any object unless the Trustees are satisfied that it can acquire good title to the object in question, and that it has not been acquired in, or exported from, its country of origin (or any intermediate country in which it may have been legally owned) in violation of that country's laws.

In accordance with the provisions of the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which the UK ratified with effect from 1 November 1 2002, and the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, the Gallery will reject any items that have been illicitly traded. The Trustees will be guided by the guidance on the responsible acquisition of cultural property issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2005.

The Gallery will be guided by 'Spoliation of Works of Art during the Holocaust and World War II period: Statement of Principles and Proposed Actions', issued by the National Museum Directors' Conference in 1998, and report on them in accordance with the guidelines.

Acquisitions outside this Acquisition and Disposal policy will only be made in very exceptional circumstances and then only after proper consideration by the Trustees having regard to the interests of other museums.

In addition, this document is supplemented by the National Portrait Gallery’s Due Diligence Policy.


As laid down in the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 the Trustees may dispose of an object, by way of sale, exchange or gift:

  • where the object is transferred to another national museum or institution listed in Schedule 5 Part 1 of the Act
  • where the object is a duplicate of another object which they own
  • where the identification of a portrait formerly accepted by the Gallery has been discredited
  • where the object has become useless by reason of damage, physical deterioration, or infestation by destructive organisms (in which case the means of disposal can include destruction)

This notwithstanding, there is a strong presumption against disposal and the Gallery will not undertake disposal motivated principally by financial reasons.

The decision to dispose of material from the collection will be taken by the Trustees only after full consideration of the reasons for disposal. Other factors including public benefit, the implications for the Gallery's collections and collections held by galleries and other organisations collecting the same material or in related fields will be considered and the views of stakeholders will also be sought.

A decision to dispose of material, whether by gift, exchange, sale or destruction in the case of an item which has become useless for the purposes of the collection by reason of damage, physical deterioration or infestation by destructive organisms will be the responsibility of the Gallery's Trustees acting on the advice of professional curatorial staff, and not of the curator of the collection acting alone.

Any monies received by the Trustees from such disposals, less any grants repayable to an external funding organisation, will be applied to the purchase of objects for the collection as laid down in the Museums and Galleries Act 1992. The proceeds of a sale will be ring-fenced so it can be demonstrated that they are spent as required by the Museums and Galleries Act 1992.

Once the decision to dispose of material in the collection has been taken, priority will be given to retaining it within the public domain, unless it is to be destroyed. It will therefore be offered in the first instance, by gift, exchange or sale, directly to other Accredited Museums/Galleries or to institutions listed in Schedule 5 of the Museums and Galleries Act 1992. If the material is not acquired directly as a gift, exchange or for sale, then the museum/gallery community at large will be advised of the intention to dispose of the material, normally through an announcement in the Museums Association's Museums Journal, and in other specialist journals where appropriate. The announcement will indicate the number and nature of objects involved, and the basis on which the material will be transferred to another institution. Preference will be given to expressions of interest from other Accredited Museums/Galleries. A period of at least two months will be allowed for an interest in acquiring the material to be expressed. At the end of this period, if no expressions of interest have been received, the Gallery may consider disposing of the material elsewhere giving priority to organisations in the public domain.

Full records will be kept of all decisions on disposals and the material involved and proper arrangements made for the preservation and/or transfer, as appropriate, of the documentation relating to the items concerned, including photographic records where practicable in accordance with SPECTRUM Procedure on deaccession and disposal.

This policy statement will be published on the Gallery's Website (, and will be reviewed at least once every five years, the next review being due in July 2013. The Council for Museums, Libraries and Archives will be notified of any changes to the policy and the implication of such changes for the future of the existing collection.