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What should happen to collections?


Peter Bleed
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As far as I know, any museums that are associated with the federal government have to adhere to the following rule when it comes to downsizing the parts of their collection that are not being exhibited. I have never been to a Smithsonian sale, but I have a close friend who has twice.  I found the statute that explains this:

"(h) CONVEYANCE OF MUSEUM OBJECTS.—The Secretary may convey museum objects that the Secretary determines are no longer needed for museum purposes, without monetary consideration but subject to such terms and conditions as the Secretary considers necessary, to private institutions exempt from Federal taxation under section 501©(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (26 U.S.C. 501©(3)) and to non-Federal governmental entities if the Secretary determines that the recipient is dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of natural or cultural heritage and is qualified to manage the property, prior to any conveyance under this subsection and subsection (g)."

 

As for the interpretation of this statute, it means that essentially ANYONE can buy objects being liquidated from a federal collection. They call this process "Deaccession;" and usually the museum will see if another institution wants it first. But in practice, only federal employees of any degree are allowed to attend these events.. at least for the Smithsonian I was told by said friend. The Smithsonian hosts their own sale; many state-owned or other museums will yield the items to an auction house like Christy's or Sotheby's.

 

 

Further reading can be had here on the touchy subject of museum deaccession:

 

https://www.si.edu/content/opanda/docs/Rpts2005/05.04.ConcernAtTheCore.Disposal.pdf

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Pete, I'm afraid that you are absolutely correct, which means that we have to bring more females into both the martial arts & collecting regimes. Once anyone gets even a little bit involved, I think that there would be a lot more protection of collections. We've actively done that in my sword club, & several of the ladies have acquired TH-level blades. Besides, I LIKE training ladies in iaido! They're a lot more fierce!

 

Chris' finding on deaccession is downright scary! The one bright spot I see is that, "museums should not dispose of items that appear to have fallen out of fashion." I'm a Curator for the Smithsonian (although for tortoises & turtles), & had never seen or heard of a document like this. Unless the "mission" of a museum pertains specifically to Japanese blades & tosogu, it's obvious that any donated collection could be deaccessioned, with very little that could be done to stop it.

 

Are there any museums like that, in the U.S.?

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Its a scary world when museums are no longer able to expand or take care of their collections due to limited space and funding. I understand that's always been an issue, but its happening faster and more frequently too. Many of the private small museums in smaller towns are going defunct and selling off because they are simply not able to compete with things like the internet or other competing forms of entertainment. Museums are a bit of a dying breed I am afraid.

 

If you've ever watched "American Pickers" (yes, its reality TV), then you'll often see the guys in it picking (buying from) old museums that have closed permanently.

 

I only ever knew about this because my friend owns a store and some of his wares are from museums in this situation. The document I knew existed, it just took a little of my old legalese skills to find it.

 

 

In the article I linked above, I found this interesting tidbit which puts some numbers specifically to the Smithsonian:

 

"Smithsonian disposals According to NCP data, from FY1987 through FY2002, 15 Smithsonian museums deaccessioned an average of 62,266 objects and specimens per year (Table 7). NMNH accounted for the bulk of these deaccessions — 56,784 items per year. Cultural history museums deaccessioned an annual average of 2,458 items, and art museums 449 items. "

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  • 2 weeks later...

Well, a prominent employee at one of the most prestigious American Museums a couple of decades ago gave a non-English interview where he openly stated that the only way for him to afford any decent living standard is to aggressively deaccession and then purchase/resell the items - which he packaged as a great personal rebellion against the stupidity of the museum's governing bodies which signed up on deaccession paperwork.

Since then the museum implemented a policy that any purchase and sale by its employee has to be documented and approved (purchases especially) by no less than Department head.

Still in the end such deaccession just puts an item back into hands of experienced collector. Worse are those being done trough some remote auction house where things can easily slip away.

 

I can tell a dozen of scarier stories, but still of die hard belief that unique items belong in museums, even if the job of displaying them is done sporadically. I can't comprehend why every American museum save MFA has to put it plainly  - substandard collection of Japanese, and MFA is the one probably least interested in blades it has. They should sell the junk that drowns them and buy couple of blades that are display friends - some good Soshu or Ichimonji.

 

Non-unique items should back into collecting world through specialized sale or dedicated collection purchase by somewhat younger collector.

 

Kirill R.

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Dear All.l.

 

While whatKirill suggests about getting rid of all but a few high quality blades makes a great deal of sense from a collecting point of view there are some problems from a museum perspective, at least in the UK.  Our passion is for a rather narrow subject, albeit one where there is a significant and I think unique national infrastructure in it's home nation.  I am unaware of any other country that has several internationally regarded organisations issuing certificates of authenticity, local and national groups meeting for disciplined study and a significant body of literature about its national weapons.

 

Most curators have an area of expertise about one small area of the collection put in their charge and often display a degree of disenchantment with other things that do not fit their own interest.  I think that most members of the general public would imagine that museums are places where the ultimate care and attention is paid to each precious object, with exceptions this is not the case.  From time to time we hear of curators publishing papers on the conservation of specific groups of objects that read more like a DIY guide to destruction to those of us who understand care and preservation from a collectors perspective.  I believe Dave Thatcher recently posted something on these lines  with regard to armour.

 

So given the theme of this thread let me posit a situation.  Suppose that I have a collection of which I am quite proud and wish to see secured for future generations and I contact a well known local museum to offer them this collection.  In my mind I can see this collection being tastefully and securely displayed with a small (ish) label acknowledging my generosity, good taste and expertise.  In the negotiations I make sure that the museum has the expertise that I am relying on to take care of my babies and they assure me that they do.  Time passes and so do I.  So does the one person in the museum who knows anything about Japanese swords.  A new curator is appointed with a great background in arms and armour only he has achieved his fame by publishing on the history of the bayonet in 19th century Europe and has developed a curatorial method that insists on burnishing blades with fine steel wool on a regular basis, never, ever removing fittings and applying a liberal coat of a potion based on linseed oil to all organic hilt materials and fittings.  An extreme example and to be honest my babies would be at much greater risk of damage through neglect.

 

I would strongly advocate Kirill's later suggestion.  If my collection goes to our local auction house and is featured in one of it's Asian Art sales then an international audience will be able to show what they think and while the collection is likely to be dispersed then at least it will go to those who made the time and effort to acquire them.

 

All the best

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This conversation has moved in directions that I had not foreseen. Thank you all, but I have to say - you guys don't understand museums - AT ALL.

I have never worked at a museum, but I've been close. I think it is fair to say that in history and anthropology at least and maybe in "art", museum are NOT THE BEST PLACE TO WORK. They attract the dorks and the folks who can't get better jobs.

Furthermore, "museums" describes LOTS of different kinds of institutions. A "collections manager" at - say - the National Park Service has essentially nothing in common with the "curator" of the San Carlo Historical Society. This diversity is so great that you simply can't generalize about "musems." They have different missions, resource bases, and oversight.

Finally, it is also important to note that an "institution" is always actually run by human beings - and we know hoe flawed they can be.

Peter

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What if I told you the Smithsonian wouldn't even accept them!  I know some collectors that worry more about their swords than their own health. Caregivers (us) have higher levels of stress than none caregivers. Don't worry about the future, it will only make it worse. Be happy don't worry. Peace.

 

 

Tom D.

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I do not have first-hand knowledge of all the details, but this is what a very famous netsuke collector said about his experience in trying to give his world-class collection to a museum.   He approached many famous museums: the MET, Smithsonian, MFA, etc.  He offered a multi-million dollar collection and a trust fund to cover the costs of caring for/maintaining and showing the collection in perpetuity.  His only material requirements were that the museum continue to show at least a small portion of the collection and that they never sell it.  All of the major museums he approached refused his offer (he did eventually find a small museum to agree - and I've been trying to see one of his pieces at that museum for 15 years without any luck.... a true waste!)

 

He ultimately decided that the museums refused his bequest because the museums really use many/most bequests as money makers with the intent of selling the objects at some time in the future (the museums are relying on the benefactors' egos in donating their treasure mistakenly believing that their treasures will be on display for future generations, all the while the museums are actually planning to sell the stuff to pay salaries and the electricity bills...)

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For the Steely Dan fans out there, Walter Becker's "Collection" of 1086 lots of guitars, basses, amplifiers, pedals, and other musical gear is going up for sale soon.  There's really NO WAY to keep that kind of a collection together.

 

The same goes for smaller collections.  Unless it was meticulously picked out, matched, and curated, there's little reason to keep it together.

 

This is different than say someone with huge pockets who commissioned a matching set of something.

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You guys haven't even heard the worst of it yet.  What not to do with your collections, when you think of consigning them to Sotheby's or Christie's, the distinguished auction houses is a big mistake, fair warning.  Open to discussion on this matter, no fudging. Like to hear your opinions.  Peace.

 

 

 

Tom D.

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I bought a complete old collection of 20 tsuba (bought between 1910 - 1914) and stayed in the family until 2015. This is now part of my collection. I have registert the collection with name and year it was bought. So i hope the collection will sold as complete and i will not sell parts of this collection. I have parts of other collections and the provenance of each piece is also important for me. I know that some collectors don't have a lot interest in the provenance. But i think it is part of the history of the pieces.

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I can understand why someone having spent a lifetime putting a collection together might hope that it will remain so after they have gone. However this rarely happens. It is a little like hoping a son or daughter will take on the collection; again it is not common. I would hope that should my family be left to dispose of my swords they will spend any resultant money on something they feel as passionate about as I have this subject, and they gain as much or even a fraction of the enjoyment studying something of their own interest that Nihon-To has given me.

Also I would much rather my collection was dispersed amongst collectors who appreciated, valued and cared for them than they be kept together in some dusty drawer in a museum storeroom to rust in to oblivion. For this to happen it would almost certainly be split up.

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Well, we need to put this into perspective. Buying an entire collection of tsuba or menuki which, say, cost $10,000 for the lot is one thing. It is a completely different thing to buy, say, a Juyo/TJ/JuBi collection worth for instance $5m. So often the smaller/cheaper things go together but the top end items tend to go separate ways (and frankly probably for the top end items competition will be most severe anyway). Also, it is difficult to find people with the exact same taste or preferences as oneself. Therefore, it is natural that things get dispersed in auctions and sales.

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Interesting thread.  Sadly, the museums for the most part don't care about our area of interest since it is such a small niche of collecting.  Even our heirs usually don't care.  

 

I bought a collection of menuki and pins that was assembled in Meiji, and I will do my best to keep it together and sell it in one lot.  

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Interesting to read all the thoughts and opinions people have on this subject, and while all of your wishes are valid, the reality of what happens after you are gone may be different than you had wished for.  

 

If you plan ahead a will might help to some degree, but even so, once dispersed according to the will who can say what the recipient will do. If you fall dead tomorrow without a will, the chips will fall where they may.

 

This topic reminds me of Dean Hartley, as he got older everything in his house was marked for the child it was to go to. I used to tell him when you are gone they are going to sell all that stuff.  But he was in denial, and adamant about leaving things to his children in order that they could cherish his memory. Not to say they didn't keep some stuff, like jewelry, but guess what happened to his swords and related items? 99.5% Sold!

 

Personally, I have been grooming my daughter since childhood to appreciate this art form.  She has a couple of swords of her own, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-30 tanto tsuba which I have been buying her forever.  My son has little or no interest, so my daughter will likely get 99% of whatever is left when I leave this earthly realm. 

 

Will she keep it or sell it, that is the question.  My answer is I don't care! No need to stress over it, I'll be dead. I am pretty sure that she will keep a few pieces that are special to her.  If she keeps a piece or two or sells it all to spend on something she is passionate about, then she has my blessing.  

 

Some provisions have been made, every piece of my own collection is photographed and cataloged along with what I paid for them to help in the event of my untimely death.

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Well,  I am  the  last candle  on the cake, my big  brother  is much older. Therefore, no family to give it.

My  library as my collection I will give to a museum. The Samurai Art Museum  in Berlin. Why ? It is a  private collection, open to the public. I  do think, fine pieces  of art should not be hidden.

The other  possessions, well they  go  another way.

Well, if  I  become  pretty  ill  bevor my death, it will take a lot  of money, than  i am forced to sell.

But  I hope, that  god has mercy and  let me  go in peace.

At  the  moment, i am  in good health. I  do hope that  will be the  future for a long time.

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The sustainability of artefact preservation relies on the enthusiasts. Governments will continue to defund museums big and small. Unfortunately history and the objects from it are often an after thought. In the archeology industry there are concerns about what happens to all the artefacts a commercial archaeologist has stored over their decades of work. One archaeologist may have hundreds of sites, hundreds of thousands of artefacts, stored in their basement in bankers boxes, but what happens to all that when they pass away or retire?

 

For private collections I think it is important that these online communities exist so the collection has an opportunity to pass onto someone who will maintain them and the history attached to them.

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Some of us may need a 12 step program. A fellow collector I know had a problem with his aortic valve when he was 40. Twenty-some years later the problem has resurfaced and the thing that worries him the most is that this might interfere with a new addition he made that is in transit!

 

Harry

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This thread is quite old. Please consider starting a new thread rather than reviving this one, unless your post is really relevant and adds to the topic..

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