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At a time when budgets are being slashed, many public institutions have inevitably been tempted to raise funds for repairs and renovation by consigning in-demand art and antiques to auction, and the issue has been highlighted by several recent controversial sales.

The key penalty available to the Museums Association board at present is to expel and bar museums that breach the code of ethics from membership, but new sanctions to act as a deterrent are to be raised at the next board meeting on September 18, said David Fleming, head of the MA's ethics committee and director of National Museums Liverpool.

Another measure can come from Arts Council England (ACE) withdrawing its accreditation, which can affect loans, grants and funding.

Recent headline sell-offs included the disposal of 24 items from Croydon's Riesco Collection of Chinese ceramics at Christie's last year and the £14m sale of the Sekhemka Egyptian statue at Christie's on July 11 - consigned by Northampton Borough Council to fund an extension to the town's museum and art gallery but with proceeds shared with Lord Northampton, whose family presented it to the museum in 1880.

Southampton City Council have also been thinking about putting items on the market to help pay the £1.5m-2m costs for repairing the art gallery's roof.

Disciplinary Action

Croydon have now been barred from MA membership, and Mr Fleming said: "Up until now the only sanction has been to withdraw membership, but we are asking whether that is a good enough deterrent because it ends up punishing museum staff [who are not usually responsible for the sale].

"I'd like to see if there is something else that could be said or done and I'll be seeking people's views on what might be appropriate. The MA does need to take a firmer line. What we're talking about is a deterrent to prevent wholesale sell-offs of collections."

The ethics committee is due to rule on whether Northampton council should face disciplinary action at that September meeting. Northampton council's museums service has already been stripped of its ACE accreditation for at least five years.

If that accreditation is taken away, the MA says any grants a museum currently get can be withdrawn and they are ineligible for any ACE funding. It can also act as a 'red flag' to all other potential funders such as lotteries, private sources, trusts, foundations, who may regard them with 'extreme caution'.

But the concern is that with millions to be made from sell-offs, local authorities are happy to take the penalties as they stand. It is also feared they are not considering such disposals as a last resort and are using insurance or inability to exhibit the items as a convenient excuse.

Scott Furlong from the Arts Council told the BBC: "It is of great importance that the public retain their trust in museums to look after the collections held in their name.

"There is a very real risk that this trust, and particularly that of potential donors and funders, will be seriously undermined if disposals from public collections are seen to be driven by financial considerations and in breach of our professional standards and ethical code."