The Sacred Gift: Donations from Private Collectors to Public Museums

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Paul van der Grijp


The phenomenon of gifting from private collectors to museums has not yet been studied in depth. Prestigious art collections usually attract more attention than modest collections, which can also include other objects than artworks. The present analysis is concerned with both elite and popular collections and is illustrated with examples from various areas of the world, including Asia and the Pacific. Constituent parts of collections are seen as “semiophors” or carriers of meaning with a sacred dimension. They are set apart from ordinary objects. Moreover, through collecting, collectors can demonstrate their excellence in a competitive way. They not only rival one another, but sometimes compete with museums, and in such cases they may choose not to donate. On the other hand, museum directors and curators are not always keen to receive entire collections but may prefer to choose the best pieces and, in doing so, may injure the pride of generous donors. Donations to museums differ from bequests in wills to family members or close friends, in that they are given to the imagined community as a whole, which provides a sacred dimension to this kind of gift.


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Peer-Reviewed Articles
Author Biography

Paul van der Grijp, Université Lumière, Lyon, France

Department of Anthropology, Full Professor