Profit Before Culture: Should History be Sold to the Highest Bidder?

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Publication Date: March 1, 1995
By Benjamin Shapell
Originally published in INSIDER’S REPORT, March, 1995.
Illustration of Christie's auction house in 1808
Auction Room, Christie's. 1808. Wikimedia Commons.

The Public’s Right to Own Original Historical Letters:

“There is a desire of property in the sanest and best men, which Nature seems to have implanted as conservative of her works, and which is necessary to encourage and keep alive the arts.” -Walter Savage Landor.

In the field of collecting autograph letters, there are two questions that dealers are always asked. “How do you know if a document is real,” is one query, and “Can the public own historical documents,” is the other. Space doesn’t allow us to answer both of these important questions in this edition of “Insider’s Report,” so we must leave it for another time to explain the different steps we take to authenticate a document. In this edition of our newsletter, we will tackle the second question – private vs. public ownership of historical documents.

Not too long ago, NBC Nightly News ran a segment on historical documents, voicing their concern that many documents which are important to American history are becoming mere wall hangings in homes across the country.  NBC pointed out that “Items once found only in public places are routinely ending up in personal collections where history is for sale [to the highest bidder].  Whose history is it,” they exclaimed.

Ken Burns, the historian and producer behind the widely acclaimed 1990 documentary classic on the Civil War and the recently shown documentary on the history of baseball, was interviewed during the NBC segment and spoke rather passionately when he said, “I’d rather see these things [historical documents] in public institutions and us more concerned about the currency of ideas than the value of a signature.”

This report from NBC raises the fundamental question which each of us who collect historical documents has to answer for himself.  Given that private individuals can both legally and practically own historical letters, the basic philosophical point is simply this – Should our history, the people’s history, be sold to private individuals, or should history stay strictly within the public domain for all of us to see?

For collectors who are new to our world and indeed new to this debate, and for any American who is genuinely concerned abut the historical legacies of this country, it is important to discuss this moral point openly.  We are confident that in the end, most people will agree with us that private ownership of historical documents is not only a good choice for our society to make, but a vital choice for the preservation of these priceless treasures.

There are a lot of points one can make to back up Burns, the most important and obvious being that public institutions are clearly the best outlets for people to view historical documents.  Museums and libraries are accessible to lots of people, and scholars can have easy access to their collections.  Important private collections are also made available to scholars and for public viewing from time to time.  Certainly, nobody thinks that private collectors are going to be selling tickets for people or historians to come to their houses or go to their bank vaults to view their holdings.

Plus, there are some treasures in the world which just can’t be placed anywhere else but in museums.  Surely the Mona Lisa was once owned privately, but its importance and stature is now so great that the thought of it in private hands is unthinkable.  Likewise with the Gettysburg Address.  The original drafts given to Lincoln’s private secretaries, Nicolay and Hay, do belong in the Library of Congress because they are some of only a few documents which still guide us as a nation.  Clearly the Declaration of Independence, the original Constitution, and certain other state or federal documents belong in that special class of documents as well.  No one is arguing that these vital pieces of our historical legacy should be anything but public property.

But while it is altruistic to think that our entire historical legacy should be preserved in public institutions for anyone to see whenever he or she wants, like so many things in life, the reality of that solution is far too impractical.  Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet didn’t take their paintings off their easels and drop them off at the local museum.  They sold their art works to private individuals in order to make a living.  No museum was going to feed them or put a roof over their heads.  In effect, the moral debate of private ownership applies as much to letters and manuscripts as it does to great paintings.  Echoing NBC’s lament of documents becoming wall hangings in homes across the country, should the treasures of the Impressionists and other great artists likewise be hanging in the living rooms of celebrities across the country?  The truth of the matter is that great Picasso’s are as “locked away” in private collections as are great letters of Lincoln.

And that’s quite understandable.  Abraham Lincoln wrote many hundreds of letters to private individuals and fellow citizens.  What were those people supposed to do with those letters?  Read them and then mail them right in to the Smithsonian?  Of course those people saved them and then passed them down to their next of kin.  If the next generations chose to sell those documents for financial or other reasons, who can rightfully argue that those people must donate them to a museum instead?  Maybe some of us would have chosen to hold on to those Lincoln letters if we owned them, or perhaps even donated them to a museum as Burns would like, but are any of us comfortable with forcing someone who needs money to donate a Lincoln letter to a public institution in exchange for a tax deduction?


These are clearly personal matters.  Abraham Lincoln’s famous 1860 letter to eleven-year old Grace Bedell, in response to her request to him to grow a beard so the ladies might be more inclined to vote for him, belonged to Grace Bedell.  In 1966, her heirs made the decision to sell it at auction.  It eventually became the property of at least two more private collectors.

Where exactly, then, in this process should the letter have been turned over to the Smithsonian Institution?  And how about letters more routine in nature but still historically important, especially the numerous wartime correspondences between President Lincoln and President Grant and others?  Which of these letters are so historically significant that they could not be owned by private individuals?  Which letters would “qualify” for private ownership?  And who would be the individual making that judgment call?  These kinds of arguments can go on and on.

In short, where Burns and other historians may have their hearts in the right places, they have not stated a practical solution for keeping all historical letters and documents in the public domain.  Take another case in point – the Kent State letters.  Richard Nixon wrote four condolence letters to the families of the four students who were killed at Kent State in 1970.  We can’t condemn the three out of the four families who decided to sell those letters rather than donate them to museums.  Who are any of us to judge what small compensation these people received for a dead son or daughter?  And it is hard to imagine Mr. Burns showing up at these people’s doorsteps with hand outstretched demanding that they give him their private letters for the public good.

There are many examples of Presidential letters which carry the same emotional power for private individuals as the Kent State letters.  On November 21, 1864, President Lincoln wrote to the widow Bixby expressing his condolences to this mother who had lost five sons for the Union cause.  This letter is one of the most admired of all Lincoln documents.  Historians James G. Randall and Richard N. Current declared that the Bixby letter “stands with the Gettysburg Address as a masterpiece in the English language.”  Henry Watterson raved that it is “the most sublime letter ever penned by the hand of man.  Unfortunately, no one knows where the original Bixby letter is.  But if the original does surface in private hands, and its provenance (generational pedigree) proves reliable, it would legally be part of the private domain.

Lincoln’s eloquent letter to Fanny McCullough is another historic letter in private hands.   Written on December 23, 1862, to the daughter of one of Lincoln’s closest friends who fell in battle, this letter is acknowledged to be one of the greatest letters of condolence ever written.  It was eventually sold privately in 1968 for a then record price of $60,000.

Like Bedell, the McCullough and Kent State letters were the private property of a particular family or an individual fortunate enough (or in some cases unfortunate enough) to own them.  What right does anyone have to take that letter away from an individual?


Just to show you how complicated Ken Burns’ solution would be in practice, consider the issue of “fair copies.”  Fair copies are the same original words and thoughts of a letter or document which are written down for private individuals at a later date.   One striking example would be the concluding paragraph from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address – “With Malice Towards None” previewed in past issues of “Insiders Report.”  Lincoln wrote out and signed this famous quotation inside a fancy autograph album at the request of a prominent Washington family some time after the March 4, 1865, inauguration.

But let’s return to the Gettysburg Address once again.  As we stated before, the originals are in the public domain. But there are five other known copies of the speech, copies which Lincoln wrote out at a later date for some friends to keep as souvenirs.  Lincoln was also open to the concept of souvenir copies when it came to the Emancipation Proclamation.  Whereas the original is in the National Archives, Lincoln also signed 48 souvenir copies of the Proclamation, which were to be sold in order to raise money for wounded Union soldiers at the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair, which ran from June 7 – 29, 1864.

A different kind of “fair copy” would be a personally signed item which had a limited run – for example, the publication, in book form, of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, the most famous and most important series of debates in American political history.  Published in 1858 to bolster Lincoln’s campaign for the Illinois Senate, they helped to galvanize sectional attitudes towards slavery three years before the outbreak of the war.  Though he lost, the debates catapulted Lincoln towards the 1860 Republican presidential nomination.

Lincoln was presented with 100 copies by the publisher to do with as he pleased.  He inscribed a number of them to friends and acquaintances, of which approximately one-fourth are accounted for.  One recognized Lincoln scholar has stated that the publication of these Debates remains the closest we will ever come to a book actually written by Lincoln.  And yet, while many are housed in institutions, many remain in the hands of private collectors.

Certainly Mr. Burns wouldn’t suggest that every copy of these historical documents and books belongs in public institutions, especially when the original intent of composing them was either to present them to private individuals or to raise money for the government by means of sale to private citizens.  Short of the original documents which were meant for the people, all letters and documents meant for individuals should remain in private hands.

Questions of practicality aside, let’s discuss the moral implications in the debate about private or public ownership of historical documents.  After all, none of us want to be a part of a business which is immoral, no matter how practical it is in the real world.

FAMOUS COLLECTORS – Presidential and Otherwise

The ethical point of view for public ownership of historical documents was most eloquently stated by Christopher Knight, the Art Critic for “The Los Angeles Times,” when Microsoft’s Bill Gates bought the Codex Hammer, Leonardo da Vinci’s 72-page scientific manuscript containing notes and drawings on hydrodynamics, at a Christie’s auction for $30.8 million (See page 33 for related story).  Knight was horrified that the Hammer Museum would sell off such a historically important document as Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific notebook to a private collector.  He argued that the Codex belonged in a museum because, “In a museum collection, an artifact is common patrimony – source of communal inspiration, pride and intellectual sustenance.  In a private collection, all bets are off. A private collector can decide to lock the object in a vault, display it in his living room for the private pleasure of select friends, keep it sequestered from scholars, or turn it into an advertising shill for the benefit of his corporation.”  But immediately after its purchase, Mr. Gates went on to state that the Codex would be on loan at least half the time to museums.

This argument which Knight and Burns and other historians make for public over private ownership of historical documents is heartfelt.  But ultimately, it is logically supported by two basic assumptions.  The first one is that private collectors are not good custodians of historical treasures.  The second is simply that public institutions are good custodians of historical treasures.  We feel that both of these assumptions are not necessarily the correct ones.  Those who present the view that private collectors are not good custodians of historical treasures are actually saying that these collectors won’t take care of an artifact properly, nor will they display it openly for the public to enjoy.  Obviously, we don’t agree with these points.

First of all, let’s face reality.  In these times of limited resources, public institutions like the Library of Congress, museums, and universities just don’t have the money to buy a lot of the historical letters and other documents which are floating around the marketplace.  Certainly, we as a nation don’t want to give dictatorial powers to our government and museums to just take historical documents from people.  And it is probably not a realistic view to believe that, with the huge deficit Washington is carrying and the budget cuts state and local municipalities are wrestling with, any branch of our government is going to come up with the cash they would need to buy these documents.  So clearly there is a place in the world for private collectors with money, and that is to buy the letters and the works of art that the government and other public institutions can’t afford.

Besides, public places were never the sole repositories of autograph material in the first place. Take Thomas Jefferson, who is ironically the subject of an upcoming Ken Burns production.  He was very specific about where he came down on the private vs. public ownership of historical documents.  He said, “It is the duty of every good citizen to use all the opportunities which occur to him for preserving documents relating to the history of our country.”

In fact, two other of America’s most popular Presidents agreed with our third Chief Executive.  One hundred years after Jefferson, FDR was putting Jefferson’s words into action.  Writing as Governor of New York, FDR said, “The value of autographic writing lies not in the mere signature but in the value and historical significance of what is said by the writer.”  As early as 1915, while serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt was busy buying letters for his collection.

President John F. Kennedy was also an avid collector.  Over the years he accumulated a fine collection of U.S. Presidents’ autographs.  The idea that historical letters somehow belonged only in museums hardly deterred FDR or John Kennedy from buying them outright.  Actually, these men, whose own letters would be fiercely sought and traded, disagreed with that entire concept.  The irony of it all, of course, is that the collections of Roosevelt and Kennedy did end up in public institutions anyway – namely in their own presidential libraries!  Jefferson eventually donated his collection of historically significant books and documents to the University of Virginia.

Some private individuals may not have a Presidential library or museum built in their honor, but they are wealthy enough to build museums which carry their names themselves.  Besides amassing a huge private art collection which he donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, banker-financier J. Pierpont Morgan opened one of the most well-respected libraries in the world.  Philanthropist Henry Huntington also set up a world renowned library in California which, along with the Morgan, recently wrapped up two of the most historically significant exhibitions ever attempted on Lincoln, slavery and the Civil War.

Both Morgan and Huntington started out as collectors by simply opening their checkbooks.  Three other individuals who proved to have some extra money in the bank were Dr. Albert Barnes, J. Paul Getty and Norton Simon.  They started out by going to museums and ended up building one, all the while accumulating important art which would eventually fill those museum walls.  And the world is truly a richer place because these men built these monuments to art and history.  Upon Norton Simon’s death, an obituary which appeared in “The Los Angeles Times” on June 5, 1993, had the following to say about this private collector’s contribution.  “Southern California is the richer for the rare marriage of means and taste that this latecomer used to build an art collection scarcely equaled west of the Mississippi… Norton Simon was more than just a wealthy aesthete.  He did not open his collection to the public only after his death.  He saw it as a public service from the beginning.”

Today’s collectors, the “modern Morgans” like Norton Simon, Ross Perot and Bill Gates, or even some of the many hundreds of people who currently own a letter of Lincoln, Washington, or Jefferson have great potential for eventually building museums of their own.  These individuals should be encouraged, not stymied by regulations, to build museums or, instead, put their collections on loan and give needed capital to museums.

And the truth is that private collectors, rather than store their treasures in private vaults, often donate or loan their collections to museums and other public institutions.  When you go to a museum to see an exhibit, many times you are actually seeing some private person’s collection.  That’s how institutions and museums get their collections in the first place.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty, the Boston Museum are all filled with private collections donated to them.  Robert Park, the curator of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, said, “I’m not bothered by (private collectors buying historical documents) because private collectors provide some of our most enthusiastic support.”

And where did these generous patrons find the pieces to build up their collections to such a level of importance that museums have devoted entire wings, if not buildings, to them?  From estates, individuals and others who decided to sell their letters, many of whom had held on to their family papers for decades, centuries and generations.

It is one thing for a private collector to be able to own historical documents, and it is entirely another matter as to how that person behaves with his collection.  For a private collector to be a good custodian of the public legacy he should allow the public to enjoy that legacy.  After all, the reason Morgan or Huntington escaped the rancor surrounding the private ownership of their manuscripts was because they were prudent and considerate collectors who realized the vital importance of sharing their collections with the public.

Happily, there are so many other stories about private collectors who are generous and act responsibly with their treasures, and we can list a few noteworthy ones.  The recent story of Bill Gates, mentioned earlier, is a prime example.  Gates was vilified by some, especially the Italian Government, because he was a private purchaser with no museum in which to house the Codex manuscript.  But Gates promised that not only will he not use the historical masterpiece for commercial purposes, but he will in fact lend it at least half the time to museums.  And to allay the fears of the Italian Government, its first engagement will be a year-long tour of museums in Italy.

Take Alfred W. Stern of Chicago, Illinois, as another example.  When the government didn’t buy the 1863 letter Abraham Lincoln sent to Major General Joseph Hooker, in which he put the officer in charge of the Army of the Potomac, Stern stepped in and purchased it himself in 1941 at a New York auction for a then record $15,000.  In 1953, Stern donated his large Lincoln collection, and an endowment for “perpetual enlargement,” to the Library of Congress.  Whereas the government didn’t buy the letter when it came on the market, look how the public came out in the end.

Walter Annenberg recently donated a premier van Gogh to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of art.  He also pledged to leave his extraordinary art collection to the Met when he dies.  Annenberg has often said that his philanthropy comes from a deep conviction that individual efforts to help others will be infinitely more successful and meaningful than government programs.  As noble as this line of reasoning is, and it is very noble indeed, it is also apparent that this belief is shared by many collectors in our world.

THE BARRETT DEFENSE: The “Circle of Collecting”

Certainly building a museum or donating a large collection has not been feasible nor the ultimate goal of many other major collectors of historical documents over the years.  But take the case of Oliver Barrett as an interesting variation of the public- minded collector.  Throughout his life he unabashedly purchased letters, mostly those written by Lincoln.  Benjamin Thomas, author of one of the most respected biographies of Lincoln, once noted, “The Barrett Collection is so full and basic that a pretty good life of Lincoln could be written from it alone, whereas no present-day life could be written without it.”

One fascinating aspect of Barrett’s life was his friendship with Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg.  In 1949, the historian wrote another Lincoln book, this time an entire book devoted exclusively to Barrett’s collection.  Entitled “Lincoln Collector: The Story of Oliver Barrett’s Great Private Collection,” Sandburg’s book told the story of how the collection was brought into existence, and is the only Lincoln collection on which an entire book has been written.

The famous Sandburg did not condemn Barrett for buying up Lincoln letters, or his decision to not build a museum to house his collection.  On the contrary, he praised it.  “The collector’s flair leading Barrett since he was a boy has resulted in a mass of source materials wherein are many items that would have probably been lost for historical purposes but for the sagacity and method by which they were sought.”

Barrett won the support and friendship of Sandburg and other scholars because he opened up his collection to the public in two unique ways: He allowed researchers free access to study Lincoln through his outstanding cross-section of letters from every phase of Lincoln’s life – something expected of public institutions, and a duty he felt he had as a private collector.  Barrett also opened up his collection to the public in another way, enabling other Lincoln collectors like himself the opportunity to build their own, and perhaps better, Lincoln collection: In 1952 his collection was released and opened up to the public by way of the Parke-Bernet auction house in New York.

Barrett had come full circle.  His collection got its start from the flow of historical documents through the marketplace – by the decisions of many previous owners to sell their personal, albeit historical property.  Now, at the end of his life, he was doing the same.  One collector who capitalized on the sale of the Barrett Collection was the late magazine tycoon and autograph collector, Malcolm S. Forbes, Sr.  The “Wanting to work” letter (eventually found its way into his collection.  As a result, it joined many other important letters of Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and other Presidents, many of which remain on either permanent or revolving display at the Forbes Magazine building in New York.  Amazingly, the Barrett auction eventually gave birth to a collection even greater than the one Barrett himself put together.  The remarkable holdings of the Forbes Collection were made possible in part because the Barrett Collection went to Sotheby’s – not to Harvard or Yale.

In essence, if a private collector decides to donate a piece to a public institution, that’s great, even commendable.  But if he decides to sell that piece, it only means that, like Barrett and others, this generational rite of passage called the “circle of collecting” begins again.  There’s nothing wrong with that, legally or, more important, morally.  It only means that other private collectors will now have a chance to build an important historical legacy.  And once that collection becomes so important or large, it may then be destined to be shown at a museum or library.

All private collectors should make known their holdings so researchers and scholars can find them.  We do feel that it is his or her duty to share his historical holdings with people in that way.  After all, the public benefits most from a collection not because of a momentary glimpse of a museum exhibition which will soon be gone for a long time, but because scholars and researchers know where to find these artifacts and can study these source materials.

Certainly there are those collectors who invest in historical documents purely for speculation and with little regard for the common good.  These people are the biggest fear of institutions and museum directors.  Unfortunately, those kinds of people will always be around.  Financial concerns don’t always allow us to be purists.  But the point is that it is not fair to group most private collectors with these few bad apples.

Most private collectors do act responsibly, and more and more of them are acting as good guardians of these historical documents.  One major reason is that technological breakthroughs, like CD-ROM’s, have made it a lot easier for private, as well as public, institutions or individuals to share their collections with people and scholars.  Whole collections can now be placed on a small disc and people can study them when they need to, or enjoy them at their leisure.  These small discs are the latest ways for institutions and private individuals to reach out to the public without the public ever setting foot in a museum.  The ease and availability which this technology is giving people to view collections, indeed entire museums, is rapidly making the public-vs.-private-ownership-of-historical-holdings debate rather anticlimactic.  After all, if scholars and researchers, indeed the public at large, will be able to see any collection at any time, perhaps the identity of who actually owns the originals won’t be as significant, regardless whether it’s a private individual or a public institution.


But for a moment, let us assume that this technology doesn’t exist, and let us deal with the question of museums in a purely philosophical vacuum.  Remember, there were two assumptions that the argument for public institutions to own historical documents rested on.  The first was that private collectors were not good custodians of these treasures.  I have argued rather extendedly (even if you don’t think convincingly) that I don’t believe that to be the case.  The second assumption was that public institutions, like museums and libraries, are good custodians of our artifacts. Now I would like to discuss several reasons why, unfortunately, that may not be the case.

First of all, there is the nuts and bolts question of space.  Public institutions are short on exhibition space and long on filing cabinets.  Museums, universities, government places, etc. all own tons of items already.  The likelihood of new material going on display is rather remote.  And even if it does, how long will it be put on display and when will it appear again?  The answer to both questions is not for a long time.

The Director of the Whitney Museum in New York admitted recently that more than 97% of the works in the Whitney’s collections are in storage, since the Whitney lacks the gallery space to show them in large scale or long term exhibitions.  The Natural History Museum in Los Angeles claims that 95% of its holdings are stashed away in warehouses and vaults.  Its overall collection of photographs, books and historical papers is believed to be the third largest in the nation, trailing only the Smithsonian and New York’s American Museum of Natural History.  And roughly 1 million pieces from this collection are packed away in cabinets and vaults.  Sadly, it is a known fact that most donated presidential letters, including those given to the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian, sit in museum or library file cabinets just gathering dust for decades, if not longer.

Even scarier, stories are beginning to leak out about the incompetence with which several major public institutions have been handling their valuable assets.  Take the story of the Library of Congress as one frightening example.  With 532 miles of books and 109 million total items spilling out over its shelves, the Library had already reached maximum capacity when it admitted several years ago that it had lost track of 300,000 of its books and other objects, many of which were rare and priceless.  “With a collection as large as the Library of Congress has…it would be impossible to track absolutely every book at any given time,” library spokeswoman Jill Brett stated.  And when the General Accounting Office finished the first-ever financial audit of the 194-year-old institution in 1991, its report stated that “because of the weaknesses in the library’s financial management operations, its ability to account for and control its collection was limited.  Other assets could have been lost or misappropriated.”  The conclusion of the audit was damning: “The Library could not effectively ensure the safeguarding of its collection.”  These tales of incompetence aren’t just limited to the Library of Congress, but since it is one of the largest public institutions, its horror story overshadows those of most other museums and libraries.

This is not just the opinion of one bitter former curator.  The marketplace is filled with former curators and directors who have left to work in the private sector.  These former public collectors feel that museums are no longer good places to work with art objects.  In other words, this informed group of professionals feel that public institutions can’t even bother with anything less than bit items or expensive objects and that the serious collecting of worthy and important items is being done in the private arena where collectors are not concerned with such large overheads and bureaucracies.  In this sad scenario, it appears that public institutions wouldn’t even be interested in most of the historic documents that are bought and sold in the marketplace anyway.

In yet another example of the “profiting from culture” motive at work in public institutions, museums are beginning to use their assets to raise money, just like businesses and private individuals.  Most notable is the trend of bigger and older museums to rent collections to smaller and newer museums for a fee, which they then use to pay some bills.  Last year, for example, the Whitney Museum in New York improved its cash flow by sharing its collection with the San Jose Museum of Art in California.  It’s certainly no secret in these economic times of ours that museums need cash, perhaps more than donated material, to stay open longer, hire more staff and absorb all donated and exhibition-grade items.  In essence, the tax laws favor the donor over the recipient (the museum itself), because the public is allowed to deduct fine art at current market value, not at cost, (which would result in a much lower tax deduction).  This has led to a flood of materials to museums and institutions, but little cash, greatly impeding the flow of exhibitions from reaching the public eye.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with collections touring this country.  It means that more of the public will have the ability to see and enjoy these artifacts.  But some of our museums are setting up loan-for-cash agreements with museums in other countries.  The Boston Museum plans to launch a new museum in Nagoya, Japan, and the Guggenheim will establish anew museum in Bilbao, Spain.  There is nothing to stop these public institutions from sending over historical documents to other countries and thus depriving the American public of the ability to view them.  Most curators and directors do have a sense of the public good when they make decisions which guide their institutions.  But with finances so tenuous, can we truly be comfortable that these same directors won’t send our important historical documents overseas if a foreign government or institution waves tens of millions of dollars at them?

The fact of the matter is that museums and other public institutions are beginning to act more and more like private businesses, and are making decisions based on profit, not based on preserving our common legacy.  Just like private individuals, public institutions are captive of economics.  When culture is mixed with economic reality, no wonder economics is known sometimes as “the dismal science.”  No other trend illustrates this point better than the increase in the rate of deaccession – the sale of all or part of a collection owned by an institution.  Museums and libraries are supposed to deaccess only to raise funds necessary to improve the quality of a collection, eliminate redundancy and refine its focus.  But the truth of the matter is that public institutions are selling off letters and other cultural property to raise money for their operations.  In other words, these public institutions are selling off Lincoln and Washington paraphernalia just to keep their doors open, not to mention keeping their lights on and their air conditioners running.  Just follow the recent press on the activities of the New York Historical Society which has sold, and will continue to sell off, many of its holdings just to cover its overhead.

The irony of all this is that many of the historical documents and other pieces of Americana being sold at auctions today are being sold by the very institutions and repositories that NBC, Ken Burns and others consider to be the endpoint of all private papers!  And these public institutions are selling these items right back to private collectors.  Certainly manuscripts, historical documents, and works of art might eventually end up in public institutions.  But in these cultural times of ours, those same letters and documents might end up being sold or traded many times over along the way.

Private collectors can be just as careful, generous and responsible with historical documents as their public counterparts.  Likewise, and unfortunately, public institutions can be just as careless with their treasures as an irresponsible individual.  In a day and age when the actions of public institutions are driven by the very same instincts which drive private individuals – the love of these artifacts as well as the desire to make a profit – it is clear to us that the argument presented by NBC, Ken Burns and others is rather misguided, if not flat out wrong.  The bottom line to this debate, in our opinion, is that you, the private collector, should not only continue your activities, but feel good about what you are doing.