Should the wishes of the person who leaves treasures to a museum or art gallery be sacrosanct? Sir William Burrell insisted that the collection he bequeathed should never be loaned abroad. Now the art world is being split by an attempt by Julian Spalding, director of Glasgow Museums and head of the Burrell Collection, to overturn that instruction.
Mr Spalding wants to loan the Burrell collection, receive loans in return, and thereby be able to join the lucrative international exhibitions circuit. He also argues that Sir William, though a shipowner, was obsessive about the dangers of sea travel (he decreed that his collection could be lent, but only in Britain as it must never travel over water).
Not only is travel much safer now, but developments such as the Channel tunnel, have altered the nature of international transportation of art. Mr Spalding has told the commission that modern storage and transport methods mean Sir William's objections are outdated and if he were alive today he would approve foreign loans.
Mr Spalding is being supported by Glasgow city council, but opposed by his own trustees (who he accuses of being a self-perpetuating clique who appoint themselves and deliberate in private). The trustees called in the commissioners earlier this month because Mr Spalding's changes will require new laws.
Also publicly opposed to mr Spalding are the great and the good in the art world, including Neil MacGregor, the director of the National Gallery, who maintains the need to respect the wishes of benefactors once they have been agreed by trustees.
Yet tomorrow will see a dramatic twist when Mr MacGregor will be brought to give evidence for Glasgow Council. Mr MacGregor, who describes the case as a "hugely significant issue for galleries and museums", has not changed his mind. But he will give details about a clause in the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act, which, unknown even to many closely involved in the field, allows national museums to go against the wishes of benefactors after a period of 50 years.
It is understood that Glasgow and Mr Spalding will argue that the Burrell is a national collection - an argument likely to carry some force, as Liverpool's art galleries are deemed to be national - and therefore should be subject to the 50-year rule. Sir William died in 1958, but made his bequest in 1944.
The Burrell Collection, housed in a pounds 20m building in 300 acres of parkland, has a display of 8,000 works, including antiquities, jades, bronzes, medieval tapestries, and paintings by Cezanne and Rembrandt.
The commissioners holding the hearings are Lord Charles Lyell (chairman), Viscount Dunrossil, and the Earls of Mar and Kellie and Balfour - a make- up which also causing comment. One senior art world source commented: "It is utterly bizarre that one of the most important issues facing museums and art galleries is effectively being decided by Scottish earls of whom we have barely heard."
David Barrie, director of the National Art Collections Fund, said yesterday: "This is a major test case and will cause extensive ripples. If Glasgow wins it will send out shock waves and will discourage many potential donors."
Bequests often come with perverse instructions. Lady Wallace, for example, left the magnificent Wallace Collection in London with an instruction that no item should ever be exhibited outside the collection. Rubens painted two landscapes designed to be hung together: one is in the Wallace Collection, the other in the National Gallery, but never the twain shall meet. The hearing in Glasgow is expected to last several more days.