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Disposal of collections

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    Disposal of collections

    It is a heart-wrenching problem to decide whether one's collection should be given to fans or donated to institutions in the hope of aiding students. There are arguments pro and con on each side.

    Bert Fenn had a horror of his collection disappearing into the maw of a museum or library to never be seen again. I share that view to a large extent, having tried and failed to get what I needed from some of them at a reasonable cost. Photographs and writings that have appeared again and again in published works (thus negating any copyright affectations by an institution) are sold at high prices and absurd demands are made for credits. The institutions did not do the work of writing, photographing, printing or publishing them. Some they have bought, but most have been given to them. Their sole cost is for sorting and storing them, yet they charge high fees for finding, printing and shipment. I have been charged more than fifty dollars for one 8" x 10" print. All too frequently the persons involved in doing this clerical work haven't the faintest idea of what they are handling. On the plus side, they offer the convenience of having many items in one place. Even so, none has ALL of what a researcher needs so he is obliged to deal with several institions anyway.

    Distributing collections among other researchers and fans also has its drawbacks. All too often their collections are unclassified and dumped into dusty boxes and bins scattered from basement to attic. Many are collected with no focus. Steamboatiana gathered from the dime store, can labels, and toys may be of value to researchers of dime store activities, can labels and toys may find them interesting, but to steamboat historians they are trash. Some collections are so narrow as to be useless. It is no fun looking through bushels of "Steamboat Willie" dolls hoping to find a something of value. There is pleasure in feeling that the recipient will fully enjoy his purchase or gift and that can be achieved only outside the institutions.

    Should a collection be willed or sold? It is a very nice gesture to give away what one has paid for, but it is not good business. Some artifacts can have considerable worth. A locomotive number plate recently sold for thousands of dollars here in Louisville. Whistles, bells, chinaware, flatware and silver plate, paintings and drawings draw much money. Correspondence between notables ranges from worthless to kings' ransoms in monetary value.

    Perhaps the worst thing that can happen is to die intestate. That is when collections fetch up in garbage cans.

    What about having a collection of "steamboatiana" sold at public auction? I supose doing it that way at least would insure that whoever gets it would really want it.
    However, I'm sure there are dealers who buy collections at auctions and then break them up and re-sell individual items to whomever will pay their prices. This of course, could cause a valuable collection to be dispersed, thus making it impossible for anyone wanting to use it for future research.


      This reminds me of Jim Swartzwelder's vast collection of 35,000 slides and other river material after he died. I called his brother and asked about preserving his collection by donating it to somebody or a historical group. Right away, money was mentioned. I asked what he thought would be a fair price and the figure $10,000 is what I remember. His brother did not care about the historical significance of Jim's material, it could have been a stack of old Sears, Roebuck catalogs to him. I called a couple of times with no luck. I have no idea whatsoever what happened to the collection.


        Thus one should have a disbursement set up before death, or distribute the collection before leaving the mortal coil. It's hard to believe that heirs can be so greedy about something of which they know, or care, nothing, but it happens all the time. A sort of collection clearing house or estate sale is a good idea.


          *RE: Disbursement/Evaluation of collections*
          Hi, Alan, John, Dan, Lexie & steamboating colleagues:
          You ALL have brought up pertinent points on this thread along with others on the web that Tom Schiffer gave the 'kick start' to the other day. I knew Jim Swartzwelder fairly well in the years before his passing. Now-and-then he'd send a photo to me here and there which I still treasure today. It's a tough call when it comes to heirs of family collections. Yes, 'possession is 9/10ths of the law' and must be respected. TV shows like 'Antiques Road Show,' 'History Dectectives' etc. bring home to viewers what may be valuable in grandpa's collection. Many art museums hold open houses several times a year for people to bring in paintings or art objects for 'identification' but steer clear of any actual cash estimate to protect themselves for various legal reasons.

          Some years back I received a call to "come and look over dad's" steamboat collection. I agreed to do 'identification' but hedged on doing appraisals as I'm no expert in that field. And so drove to look all over. The heir in question saw $$$ signs on the horizon. "Dad's photos, showboat posters worth about $6,000," I heard. I looked closer and closer noting something 'funny.' Faces hit the floor when I found that the many steamboat photos were copies purchased from Capt. Fred Way, Cincinnati Public Library and Capt. C.W. Stoll. "These copies...not originals nor are the showboat posters." Interesting photos for sure--but not the original plates. I did a hasty retreat.

          My interest in old steamboat financial and business matters causes me to always look for paper documents, letters etc. Many of these dismissed by people not knowing what they are. Such documents were created 'within the experience' of the times and actually talk to one another in a dialogue. Freight bills, shipping contracts etc. contain far more interesting information than we often think. Many leading antique dealers/appraisers will take a collection on consignment for possible auction after investigating just what they have or don't have. There's the fun of it employing 'steamboat forensics.' That not recognized for actual worth--or just don't move at auction time--are often returned to the original owner. A real mind blower [Not steamboats in nature] was the terrific collection of Western art, Indians etc. owned by the late Cincinnatian Marge Schott, former majority owner of the CINCINNATI REDS. I roughly estimated seeing in one strong room some $12,000,000 in paintings + or -. Yet, thrown in a corner in dusty boxes was her collection of vintage B/W photos of the building/completion of the Panama Canal etc. [!]

          Copyright (C) can be an issue in some cases. Mere 'ownership,' 'transfer of possession,' 'gift' or 'sale' doesn't always give the present possessor free Copyright. As Alan Bates wisely points out with steamboat photos, the cases usually never come to litigation due to many photos having been in the public domain or the Copyright not being renewed. A tempest in a teapot have you. Museums accepting collections aren't always obliged to display--or keep--such acquisitions. Getting access for research is always a problem due to institutions, libaries, archives etc. faced with budget crunches. Cost of photo copies also very high. A gentleman in Cincinnati recently presented a leading huge museum in New York a fine collection of materials etc. [I'm hedging here to protect him and myself on a public forum] only to learn recently the museum gleaned out certain pieces/items making available for sale/auction the remainder. More than one museum/institution has de-accessed portions of their collections to raise funds for other needs or to 'enrich' their current core collections. It happens all the time.

          The U.S. Navy Dept. NEVER gives up rights to any memorabilia from old vessels even if in private hands. Recently a family innocently attempted to put for auction the set of silver from the officer's quarters on the battleship ARIZONA uncovered by a family member who was a diver following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. The Navy and Dept. of Interior swooped in immediately with the vintage damaged set of silver being politely taken out of consideration for auction. Chances are it may be returned to the government in the form of a 'donation' by purchase for preservation and future display. The silver from the ARIZONA was discovered in the ship's wreck while removing guns, armaments etc. desperately needed in the war effort. More on this in time if I hear.

          R. Dale Flick
          Coal Haven Landing, Ohio River, Cincinnati


            Just a quick response to the problem of deaccession. I worried about this too when I was considering donating Hoosier Boy memorabilia that belonged to my family. So, I put my own clause into the agreement with the museum. If they wanted the things (and they did), then they had to agree that if deaccession was ever deemed appropriate for any of my items, the item in question would have to be offered back to me -- or to my closest heir -- before anything could be done with it. Of course, that could open up a whole other set of problems, but I felt like it was one more level of protection for the artifacts. Some items I just do "long term loans," which they don't love, but will accept if they really want the item. Just my one and a half cents.......