Acquisition and disposal policy

1. The Collection         

Under the terms of the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 the Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery maintain a collection of portraits of the most significant persons in British history, from the earliest times to the present day.

The principle for the inclusion of a portrait in the Collection is that a person represented should have made, or be making, a substantial contribution to British history or culture. The subject of a portrait acquired for the Collection must either be important in his or her field, be a person whose achievements, influence and reputation set him or her apart as an individual of public interest, or illuminate British history and culture in a significant way. The Gallery places particular importance on attempting to ensure that, within these essential criteria, the selection of sitters takes account of social and cultural diversity and that a broad range of fields of endeavours are considered.

The Gallery’s second objective in building its Collections is to acquire portraits that enable research into, and an appreciation of, the history of portraiture, including significant and representative examples of portrait types and the work of exceptional portrait artists.

The Collection is made up of three parts: the Primary Collection, the Photographs Collection and the Reference Collection.

2. Acquisition Criteria for the Primary Collection

The Gallery collects portraiture for the Primary Collection in all media including paintings, drawings, miniatures, artist’s prints, sculpture, photographs, photographic negatives, film, digital works and new media, as well as works of mixed media. As laid down in the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 the Trustees acquire, whether by purchase, gift, bequest, commission and transfer, portraits of the most significant persons in British history in all media as well as portraits and other objects of particular importance to the study of British portraiture.

The criteria for acquisition have evolved from those laid down at the Trustees' second meeting on 16th February 1857 where it was stated that it should be 'the rule... to look to the celebrity of the person represented' in the first place; and that Trustees shall 'attempt to estimate’ the ‘significance of the sitter’s achievements 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… history of the country'.

It has been a central concern of the Trustees since the foundation of the Gallery that the portraits acquired should in some way be authentic records of the sitter’s appearance and that the portraits should, wherever possible, be undertaken from life. In particular, the Gallery places considerable importance on original art works created during the lifetime of the sitter; it gives lower priority to later copies of historic portraits (except where this is the only representation of sitter available).

The Gallery recognises that the practice of some artists involves working indirectly (for example from photographs or secondary sources), as well as directly from the life. The Gallery will also have regard to the importance of the image, the identification and 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 to take into account limitations imposed by such factors as staffing, storage, conservation resources, display space and long term maintenance costs associated with non traditional media. 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 public 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.

Should human remains form any component of an artwork for potential acquisition, the Gallery will follow the DCMS guidelines, ‘Guidance for the care of human remains in museums’, issued in 2005. Should these remains prove to be less than 100 years old, the Gallery will obtain the necessary license under the Human Tissue Act, 2004.

The Gallery will not knowingly acquire by any direct or indirect means any object including an animal specimen that has been collected, sold, or otherwise transferred in contravention of any national or international wildlife protection or natural history law or treaty of the United Kingdom or any other country, unless with the express consent of an appropriate external authority.

3. Acquisition Criteria for the Photographs Collection and Reference Collection

The Gallery acquires works for the Photographs Collection in order to expand the representation of significant sitters since the advent of photography. Acquisitions for the Photographs Collection follows the general principle of collecting portraits of men and women who have contributed, or are contributing to, British history and culture.  The range of sitters selected is wider than those acquired for the Primary Collection (where sitters are determined by the Trustees). The Photographs Collection also acquires portraits and other objects of particular importance to the study of British portraiture, including the work of significant portrait photographers.

The Gallery acquires works for the Reference Collection (usually works on paper, albums and documentary material) in order to preserve primary and secondary visual sources relating to the history of portraiture. The Gallery is guided by the 'Code of Practice on Archives for Museums and Galleries in the United Kingdom' (3rd ed., 2002) when acquiring archival material. On occasion works from the Reference or Photographs Collection may be transferred to the Primary Collection on the advice of Gallery Curatorial staff and when approved by the Trustees.

4. Acquisition Process and Guidance

All works to be acquired as part of the Primary Collection are recommended by the Director following consideration by the Curatorial staff. They are subject to the approval of the Board of Trustees, except in those instances when acquiring works at auction when the Chair of the Board will authorise a bid to an agreed level on behalf of the board. The process of commissioning portraits from contemporary artists is guided by the Trustees who approve the choice of sitters for commission, and the completed portraits. A contract of commission is agreed with all artists, confirming the nature of the portrait, the price and proposed completion date. Works acquired for the Photographs Collection and the Reference Collection are approved by the Director or his or her delegate.

In addition, this document is supplemented by the National Portrait Gallery’s Due Diligence Policy. The Gallery will be guided by the Holocaust Return of Cultural Objects Act (2009), which requires public collections to undertake provenance research during the period 1933-45 and make this information publically available on its website. The Gallery is also 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 call to members of February 2014.

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 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.

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.

5. Disposal

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

  • where the object is transferred to another national museum or institution listed in Schedule 5 Part 1 of the Act or other accredited museums.
  • where the object is a duplicate of another object which they own or where the Gallery’s collection of a specific sitter includes multiple portraits.  
  • where the identification of a portrait formerly accepted by the Gallery has been universally discredited and the portrait is no longer considered by both Gallery Curators and external scholars to represent a particular British sitter.
  • 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 by any means 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 all relevant stakeholders (including artists, funding bodies, sitters and benefactors) will also be sought.

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 transfer, 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 transfer, gift, and 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. Proper arrangements will be 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 and the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics. In the case of a transfer of a work to another accredited museum, the Gallery will retain copies of the acquisition documentation and the original documents will be passed to the new owner together with transfer of title documentation.

The Gallery will only dispose of a work by sale or destruction in exceptional circumstances. This form of disposal would only be authorised by the Gallery's Trustees on the written advice of the Gallery Curator responsible, the Chief Curator and one external advisor with art historical knowledge of the field. A decision to dispose of material by destruction would only take place 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. In the cases of disposal by sale, 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.

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 January 2020. The Arts Council will be notified of any changes to the policy and the implication of such changes for the future of the existing Collection.

Tarnya Cooper, Chief Curator
February 2015

The acquisition criteria were updated in June 2017 to define priority criteria for the period July 2017- July 2019. This was approved by the Trustees on 5 July 2017 at its 769th meeting. The priority criteria for acquisitions during the period July 2017 – July 2019 are as follows:

a) Works currently on long term loan to the Gallery that are offered for sale by the lender.
b) Works depicting sitters of significance as defined by the Acquisitions and Disposals Policy, who are currently not represented in the Reference or Primary Collection.
c) Works depicting currently under-represented groups including female sitters or sitters from cultural, social or ethnic backgrounds who meet the existing criteria defined by the Acquisitions and Disposals Policy and who are not currently represented in the Primary collection.
d) Works that meet our criteria as laid out in the Acquisitions Policy that have the capacity for a transformational impact in significantly increasing audience engagement or would be required for display within the exhibition or display programme.
e) Works created in an under-represented medium or technique.
The Director and Trustees will use these guideline criteria at their own discretion. The criteria do not indicate that all works meeting these criteria will be acquired, nor do they imply that all works falling outside these criteria shall be routinely rejected, particularly where items are part funded, as subject to approval by the Curatorial Offers meeting and the Trustees meeting.

The updated criteria above will be reviewed in July 2018 and again in July 2019.

Tarnya Cooper, Chief Curator

July 2017