"Certainly, this is a big problem," said Rebecca Buck, deputy director for collection services at the museum in New Jersey's largest city, which has dozens of other unclaimed items. "We can't do anything with them."
At museums and historical societies across the region, hundreds of pieces of art and artifacts languish in crowded storage areas. Many were lent in the early part of the last century, before professional staffs kept track of such items and their owners.
The dilemma has prompted legislation that has passed the New Jersey Senate and is being considered by an Assembly committee to provide a way for museums to take ownership of the "old loans."
Institutions would be required to send registered letters to the last known address of the owner and publish notices in newspapers signaling the end of the loan. If the owners don't respond, the museums would take legal possession.
About 40 states have similar laws. Attempts to enact a measure in Pennsylvania have been unsuccessful.
New Jersey's proposal - by Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Westfield) - comes as institutions and organizations in the region have been reassessing their collections and selling some items, including those donated, to pay for acquisitions.
A few organizations also are using the proceeds to refurbish aging buildings and pay off debt as operating expenses climb and donations are off because of the bad economy.
The measure clearing the way for museums to take possession of unwanted old loans would allow for their transfer to other more appropriate institutions or their sale, which could raise cash.
"In the past, especially at museums with older collections, a lot of loans were made simply on a handshake basis," said Elizabeth Romanaux, president of the New Jersey Association of Museums and senior communications consultant at the Liberty Science Center. "They didn't have a registration system, so someone would lend something to a collection, die or move on, and we couldn't find them."
The institutions, Romanaux said, are "cluttered up with things they can't do anything with. . . . If you leave a coat at the dry cleaner for 30 days, they can dispose of it.
"If you lend something to a museum, it's there for perpetuity if someone can't find any paperwork or agreement on it."
New Jersey's proposed law would help institutions such as the Princeton University Art Museum, where many lent pieces were stored long ago.
In one case, scores of paintings belonged to "someone who has been dead now for 75 years," said Maureen McCormick, the museum's chief registrar, who oversees the collection. "We've been unable to contact the heirs."
Some of the art is more suited for a dining room than a museum, she said.
In the past, "we held on to items not of museum quality as a favor to a friend of the museum," McCormick said. "Things were done more casually than they are now.
"Someone would say, 'Oh, I'll be back in; I'll pick it up next week,' and it doesn't happen."
In Pennsylvania, "every museum has things on loan from 80 years ago," said Mary Jane Miller, head of collections management for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in Harrisburg. "They're all in that position.
"We try to identify the loans, but the records are obscure."
The problem has New Jersey museum officials pushing for the Assembly version of Kean's legislation.
"It would be nice to have the flexibility," said Linda Gentry, executive director of the Camden County Historical Society in Camden. "If something doesn't fit the mission [of the institution] and you're just storing it, you need to move it along. We have items we can't possibly use.
"We have a fancy chandelier that doesn't fit into colonial times, and other items that don't fit," she said, adding that decisions about selling artifacts are up to the society's directors. "I can completely understand the need for cash."
Institutions such as the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton have gone to extraordinary lengths to track down the owners or heirs of old loans, using census records and other tools.
"Having been a collecting institution since 1903, [we] have seen situations like this in our own collection . . . and we were able to resolve them only after many months of exhaustive effort, and even with that, we were lucky," said Richard Patterson, executive director of the historic site.
The Old Barracks has sold some donated items at auction and used the funds to expand the collection, thereby honoring the intent of the donors.
In Philadelphia this month, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts reported selling five artworks for about $5 million and said it would use the funds for acquisitions.
Some institutions are deaccessioning parts of their collections for other reasons.
The New Jersey Historical Society in Newark sold a rare 1784 hand-colored map of the United States at Christie's, where it went for $2.1 million.
"Nonprofits like us struggle because of the economy and expenses, so they deaccession items for a new piece; we're paying off debt," said Steve Tattamanti, acting executive director of the society. "We wound up with $1.8 million from the sale, and we are applying it to our mortgage.
"Some places are being forced to make these decisions," he said. "I don't believe it will ever come up again" at the society.
In the last two years, the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent sold part of its collection, using some of the funds to cover a $5.8 million renovation project.
"I don't think [the New Jersey legislation] is going to lead to museums flooding the art market with fantastic pieces of art," said McCormick, of the Princeton museum.
Many institutions have no choice when it comes to selling parts of their collections, whether the items were donated or legally possessed through a state law.
"How do they keep the doors open if they can't pay the rent and insurance or fix the roof?" Romanaux said. "If they close, the whole collection will be sold, and who knows what will happen to it.
"If you are hugely in debt, what's the solution? We have to be practical at this critical time."
Whether the proceeds of sales go for acquisitions or debt, the proposal in New Jersey "will strengthen our museums, because they'll no longer have to care for objects that don't make sense for them."
Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or email@example.com.