Question: I have lent a valuable painting to a museum in Europe. Due to Covid-19, the museum has temporarily shut its doors without any firm timeline of when it will reopen. The exhibition for which I loaned my painting was scheduled to close in June 2020, but the museum is considering extending the exhibition until October 2020. I would like my painting back. Can I demand that the museum return my painting in July, as agreed with the museum?
Answer: Yes, you can demand that the museum return your painting in July as agreed, provided that: (i) nothing in the loan the agreement gives the museum the right to unilaterally extend the term of the loan without obtaining your prior written consent, (ii) the museum can arrange shipment of the painting back to you without violating any relevant governments’ restrictions in place as a result of Covid-19, and (iii) fine art shippers are still operating in the relevant countries. If government restrictions prevent the museum from arranging shipment and/or fine art shippers are not operating, you can negotiate the return of your painting as soon as the restrictions are lifted and shipping companies have resumed their operations.
Museums around the world have been forced to shut their doors as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and some of them may be struggling to keep their collections safe. Museums are short staffed and furloughing employees to save costs, and law enforcement officials are occupied with ensuring the safety of the general public and enforcing lock-down. With limited resources at hand, museums and their collections are particularly vulnerable to art crime. In late March 2020, a van Gogh painting was stolen from the Singer Laren museum in the Netherlands.
While you wait for your painting to be returned and the museum is shut, you would be well-advised to maintain steady communication with the museum to enquire how and where they are storing your painting and the security measures in place to protect artworks in their premises. If the painting is insured by you, it is imperative that you check whether your insurance policy protects the painting against the risk of loss and damage whilst it is kept in a closed museum. It is also imperative that you keep your insurers informed of your communications with the museum and encourage them to directly communicate with the museum, where necessary. If the risk of loss and damage is covered by the museum or a government indemnity, you should seek written confirmation from the museum that insurance cover remains unchanged until the museum reopens.