Letter: Dispute over gift of private letters

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Sir: Your article 'Collector's anger at move to sell Turner' (18 February) raises the crucial issue of how the flow of private gifts of art treasures to our institutions can be maintained in the light of these and other similar events.

A few years ago, I became involved in such a dispute, and the outcome has made me think very hard before making donations myself. A few years before his death in 1972, my father left some private letters from Charles Rennie Mackintosh to his wife, to a university, with the condition that 'they be made available for study and research, but may never be published in any form at any time'.

The university was challenged by an author who said he was going to publish substantial parts of these letters, and I was asked by the university whether this was acceptable to me. With the best will in the world I just could not do this, and an injunction was served on the author. In the end, however, the university was persuaded to lift the injunction and allow publication.

Donors will have to ask themselves whether the purpose of their gift is to benefit the institution in any way they think fit, or whether they intend that the gift should be permanently available to the public at that institution. In the former case, a legal document should be drafted requesting that the gift be unconditional, whereas in the latter case, the donor should consider all the possible controls he may wish to exert on his gift in the future.

Recipients of gifts, on the other hand, will have to think most carefully as to whether they can really commit themselves and their heirs to conditions, otherwise donors really will dry up.

Yours faithfully,


Stour Provost,


21 February