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Buying historical items

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    • #135435
      David C


      I had a person from a neighboring Historical Society e-mail me mentioning he came across some photos we might be interested in. The photos are not owned by this person, but rather by someone who was settling the estate of a deceased relative. If we wanted the photos, we could make an offer.

      We have a Collection Management Policy from 1980. It is in desperate need of updating. Part of the policy says we should refrain from purchasing items for our collection. We have made purchases in the past, such as a 1920’s cook stove. We also purchase modern up-to-date books on historical topics for visitors to read. These books are generally bought in memory of a deceased Society member.

      I know there can be problems if a potential donor hears we have purchased items in the past (Future donors might want to sell an item to us instead of donating it to us). With this in mind, I’m wondering how other Museums and Historical Societies handle this type of situation. Personally, I don’t think we should be “advertising” how we acquired an item or from whom. That should be proprietary knowledge. I’m also wondering about the ethical aspect of purchasing an item to keep it in our area, rather than hearing the item was put in the town dump or sold to someone 1000 miles away.

      David Cranston, Curator
      Hadley-Lake Luzerne Historical Society
      52 Main St – PO Box 275
      Lake Luzerne, NY 12846

    • #135436
      Amanda Malkin

      Hello David,

      I will respond shortly with some resources to help.


    • #135437
      Amanda Malkin


      I’m curious if you considered approaching the owner of the photographs and inquiring if they would be interested in donating them to the Historical Society due to their historical significance. This would alleviate the quandary of going against your institutions Collection Management Policy, however outdated it might be, presently.

      I reached out to a collections management expert and I will follow up with you regarding how other collecting institutions and historical societies approach questions of acquisition.

      The following documents/Webinar series could be helpful when updating/redesigning your Collections Management Policy:

      Essential Elements of a Collections Management Policy

    • #135440
      Amanda Malkin

      Hello David,

      Following up with information/advice about acquisitions from the collections expert I contacted. Her response is below:

      “If collections are purchased, there is typically no need to credit the source. Of course, an exception to this would be if the object is purchased using donated funds, in which case the donor would be credited and recognized to the extent that she wishes.”

      Regarding selling vs. donating:

      “There are added benefits to a donor that a seller would not have: credit and recognition, the potential for a tax write-off, and the less measurable reputation of goodwill and support to history and culture. Sure, it’s entirely possible that someone holding the desired object(s) in question would be mercenary enough to be interested in the money foremost, but I would argue that the ultimate, longer-term return would be greater on a donation than on a sale.”

      If you have further questions she would be more than happy to speak with you. Her contact info is Dyani Feige,


    • #135444

      I agree, we don’t budget for purchases but instead ask the items be donated. an income tax receipt is usually enough for someone. You definitely should update your collections management policy to answer questions like this in the future.

    • #135448
      David C

      Thank you for the responses. I spoke to the person who contacted me and asked if the owner would donate the photo to us. The person who spoke to me is not the owner of the photo. He will be getting back to me.

      I looked over our Collection Management Policy again. The clause about purchases is much more broad than I thought. It says, “Acquisition of items – (5) Items such as copies of photos, maps, books etc. may be purchased if deemed particularly suitable to museum collections.”

      This is the 2nd time an individual approached _US_. The first time we declined to purchase. I’m not in favor of purchasing from a private individual. I’m somewhat acceptable of making an _occasional_ purchase if it is at a public auction or from another Museum or Historical Society. With Museums and Historical Societies, an exchange of items is preferable.

      I was overly broad when I said “I don’t think we should be ‘advertising’ how we acquired an item or from whom”. I was referring to something we purchased. When someone donates to us we will post a sign stating “donated by…” if the donor wishes. If someone asks who specifically donated an item (does not happen often), we will look at the accession card to see if it says “do not announce”. We have a couple of these and were probably donated by someone who at the time had a disgruntled relative.

      I agree our Collection Policy should be updated. At this time we are not accepting a lot of items so we have been focusing our efforts on doing an inventory and getting our records in order. We are a very small organization with no help or volunteers (I do the accession work plus building maintenance, and I work elsewhere 40 hrs per week). The clause about purchasing will definitely be changed, particularly because in NYS we are now obligated to give a copy of our Collection Policy to each new donor (and potential donor).


    • #135468
      Hannah Frederick

      Hi David,

      I do have a small acquisition budget each year, and per my Collections Policy I am allowed to purchase objects for the collections as appropriate. However, this can be tricky. If the seller is local (here in town) I will approach the seller about donating the object. I have yet to run into a local person not willing to just donate the object. Sometimes objects also come up for sale on Ebay. I do not regularly check Ebay for objects but we have a board member who does (on his own volition). If the object is not too expensive then I am okay purchasing it. If the object is too expensive for me I usually reach out to the seller to ask if they are willing to donate. Usually people on Ebay think the things they are selling are worth 10x what they actually are, and usually tell me no in terms of donation. Unfortunately then I just say OK, and move on. It is sad, but we just do not have the funds. For instance recently on Ebay a scrapbook from a prominent family in town was on Ebay. The seller had taken the scrapbook apart and was selling each page for at least $20. This is ridiculous. The photos are mostly from the 1920s, and no one except related family or someone who knows that the photos are will be interested. But the seller was unwilling to donate the scrapbook. They ended up selling none of it. I usually wait for these tings to get posted a couple of times before I suggest a donation again. So honestly my purchases are really on a case to case basis. I understand your hesitancy in regard to worrying that future donors will want money for their donations, but I have just told people NO when they have tried to sell me things.

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