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Undocumented front porch donations (long question)

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    • #134786
      David C


      I am finding conflicting regulations in New York State about Unsolicited Undocumented property; also known as front porch donations. At it says:
      · Unsolicited Undocumented Property Left at a Museum after January 1, 2009

      Beginning January 1, 2009, a museum shall acquire the rights to undocumented property that is not solicited by the museum and that is delivered to the museum or left on the museum premises, if no one comes forward to establish ownership interest in it within 90 days of delivery of such property to the museum.

      I take that to mean, if something is left at our door, we can claim ownership of the item if nobody comes forward within 90 days.


      The notice must be titled “Notice of Intent to Acquire Property” and must include a statement containing substantially the following information:
      “The [name of museum] hereby asserts its intent to acquire title to the following property: [brief description of property]. If you claim ownership to this property, you must contact the museum in writing to make arrangements to collect the property. If you fail to do so within one hundred eighty (180) days, the museum will commence proceedings to acquire title to the property. If you wish to commence legal proceedings to claim the property, you should consult an attorney.”

      I guess this means we can start to acquire ownership of undocumented property in 180 days but we also have to place a legal notice in the newspaper.

      Even more baffling, farther down under “NYS MUSEUM PROPERTY LAW”, Section 1(h) gives a definition for “Undocumented Property”. It says:

      (h) The term “undocumented property” means property that has  been  in   the  possession  of  a  museum  for at least ten years and for which the   museum cannot determine the lender, donor, or owner  by  making  a  good   faith  and  reasonable search for the identity and last known address of   the lender, donor or owner from the museum  records  and  other  records   reasonably available to museum staff.

      This seems to mean we have to be in possession of the item for 10 years before we can call it “undocumented property”.

      What ARE we suppose to do when someone leaves something at our door? Wait patiently for 90 days and see if someone comes forward? Put a legal notice in the newspaper and wait 180 days? Wait 10 years before we can even call the item undocumented property… and then start the 90 or 180 day waiting period?

      I’ve also read in the NYS Education Laws that we need to contact the State Comptroller’s office and have a description of abandoned items placed on the unclaimed property list for 180 days. After 180 days we can claim ownership of the item.

      David Cranston, Curator
      Hadley-Lake Luzerne Historical Society
      52 Main St – PO Box 275
      Lake Luzerne, NY 12846

    • #134800

      Hi David,

      Ultimately, because state law differs so much, it would be good to ask your board’s legal counsel or contact your state attorney general’s office for this clarification in New York State. Ask your Comptroller’s office if their list is for all museums or specific to state-funded ones. You might also have good luck contacting your state museum because they probably are very well versed in specifically what you are required to do. The 90-day abandoned property law that is specific to museums is dated 2009; is this earlier or later than the other laws referenced? Is it a sub clause or umbrella clause in relationship to the other mentioned property laws?

      It appears that the laws you are quoting refer to two different situations, abandoned property and “found in collections” (FIC’s). Those items left without any documentation on your porch are the first while those undocumented items that an employee or staff member comes across in the collections or museum are the latter. Regardless, many states require listing porch drop-offs as “abandoned property” and posting them publicly for a certain amount of time (180 days is common).

      If you find items in your collection with no documentation, the onus is on your institution to make a real attempt to find the original owner or their heirs and determine if it was a loaned item or a donation. This is likely why there is a 10 year FIC clause, to inspire museums to properly document incoming donations and loans separately so that there isn’t contention about whether an object was donated or loaned in the event the original owner is no longer around to verify.

      If something is found on the porch, either refuse to accept it by posting in the local lost and found, your social media, email blasts to members, or your newsletter for someone to come pick it up. Or, you can immediately document who found it, where, and when. Then after 90 days, it appears you legally acquire ownership but aren’t required to accession it unless you want to keep it. These types of postings may also help alleviate the number of drop-offs you get as your community begins to read about their generous donations in the local press. There might be a good visibility article here for someone from your museum to be interviewed about drop-offs and the resources it takes to deal with well-intended but poorly thought out gifting.

    • #134807
      David C


      Thank you for the VERY good information. I was afraid with such a long question, nobody would reply. Thanks!

      You had asked, “The 90-day abandoned property law that is specific to museums is dated 2009; is this earlier or later than the other laws referenced? Is it a sub clause or umbrella clause in relationship to the other mentioned property laws?”. I believe all of these came about at about the same time.

      Now that I’ve read your response, I bet you are correct that there IS a difference between “Front Porch” undocumented items and “Found In Collections” undocumented items. I will be contacting our State Museum for clarification about what we should do.

      = = =

      I am our new Curator, having taken over the job held by someone since 1980 (shortly after we began). Previously, the Curator would accession “Front Porch” items as coming from an “Unknown donor” without batting an eyelash. 30 years ago in our small town it may have been okay to accept items from an “unknown donor”. Times have changed. Now-a-days, “front porch” items could have been stolen or given to us illegally by a spouse going through a nasty divorce.

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