The Historic Beaufort Foundation was wrong to sell items that it knew belonged to the city of Beaufort without specific, written permission.
The sale took place five years ago, during a seven-year period in which the foundation managed the city's museum collection. Last December, the city got a check for about $42,000 from the foundation. It represents proceeds from the 2008 sale of 61 items that belonged to the city's museum collection but were not, according to the foundation, germane to Beaufort.
Items owned by the city that sold for the most included a Eugene Savage painting titled "Butterfly" that sold for $14,000, a William Halsey painting titled "Afterglow, Charleston" that sold for $6,400, and a Carl Raymond Blair painting titled "Perennial Legend III" that sold for $5,500.
The foundation believed it was authorized to manage the collection as it saw fit, but Mayor Billy Keyserling calls the sale a "misstep." He's right. And he's also right to say the city and perhaps the original donors of the items should have been notified.
Proceeds from the sale are finally where they belong.
But important lessons can be gleaned from the episode by other organizations countywide.
This case involves a well-respected and widely supported nonprofit agency in the Historic Beaufort Foundation, a city government and a collection of odds and ends that represent and help explain the fabric of the community. A great deal of public trust is vested in all three. For that reason, all their dealings must be transparent and legally airtight.
Local governments and nonprofits often work together for the benefit of the community. This case is one of many that illustrate how important it is that both parties know precisely, in writing, what is expected of each other. That can easily require layers of "red tape" that people love to complain about, but legal documentation and legal procedures are vital to the accountability and public trust people also expect and deserve.
Beaufort has struggled for years over what to do with the museum collection, but now it seems to have a fresh start. In the past two years, the city has inventoried, documented and stored the collection as well as possible and placed it under the control of a new nonprofit, the Beaufort History Museum. New eyes are now looking at the old challenge of how best to maintain and present the museum collection. That is not an easy task, but the burden will be lighter if all parties establish precise, contractual understandings to ensure transparency and public trust.