The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has signed an agreement with the Bridgeman Art Library in London to sell images of some of its most famous artefacts.
Under the three-year arrangement access to the images of paintings, inscriptions, photographic records, one of the world's finest coin collections and archaeological finds - including the Anglo-Saxon treasure known as the "Alfred Jewel" - will be restricted to those who are prepared to pay.
The library has secured exclusive rights as the Ashmolean's UK agent to market the images world-wide. "The expectation is that this will generate considerable extra income for the curatorial work of the museum," Roger Hobby, the museum's administrator, said.
The museum needs to raise extra external funding to keep it running and protect the level of service, he added.
A spokeswoman for the Bridgeman Art Library said the most likely clients for the images were publishers, producers of commercial products and the media. But academics wanting slides for lectures were another possible market.
Worries that academics would be denied the usual access to Ashmolean artefact material were unfounded, she said. There would be a charge only for images of selected artefacts required for a particular, usually commercial, use.
Such fears have arisen amid speculation that a deal to restrict rights of access to images, such that secured by Bill Gates and his Corbis Corporation with museums around the world, could be worth millions.
Marilyn Deegan, former director of humanities at Oxford, said: "Just a few of the right images could earn an awful lot of money."
The museum is taking part in a multi-million pound project set up by Oxford University to create a new library complex as a first stage of a larger Ashmolean Research Centre for the Humanities.
Mr Hobby said the museum had no immediate plans to set up its own digitised picture library, or any licensing arrangements for the use of images. But it would be "examining all its options" at the conclusion of the Bridgeman contract "in order to maximise use of the collections and commercial return", he said.