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To buy or not to buy

In last week’s mail came a rather lavishly illustrated catalog of materials from a documents/photographs/artifacts dealer listing a number of Alaskana items for sale. One of them, a photographic print by Eric A. Hegg, caught my eye. Because we have a small collection of photographic prints from Eric A. Hegg and then a few scattered about in collections from others who may have purchased his prints and I suspect so does about every archives and museum in Alaska and anybody else collecting Alaskana. He was a professional photographer, after all, who sold multiple copies of his work.

Anyway, the photo in question is estimated to sell for between $100 and $300. It’s of miners digging out victims of an avalanche on Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike gold rush.  So I went looking at our Hegg collection, which along with 3 souvenir albums of half-tone prints, has 28 individual photographs, most of them cyanotype prints.  (see Megan’s posting on cyanotypes if you’re interested in what those are.) We don’t have this particular one in the individual prints.  I did notice that the photos we do have are in really great shape. If you start pricing out materials individually based on that estimate above, our Hegg collection could be worth, at a minimum, $2800.

Which leads me to one problem [of many] with this whole thing.  What the dollar amounts hide is the real value of the collection for an institution with our particular mission: the research value of the materials. We’re not about dollar amounts, we’re about providing access to primary source materials to the researchers who need them. We aren’t collectors purchasing cool-looking artifacts to frame and put on display (or given the appraised sales value of these, I have to assume the purchasers aren’t framing them and putting them on display), we’re about the information contained in the materials: in the scene is captured in the image itself, in the condition or type of media, in the caption applied to the image and what that says not only about the contents of the image, but about the photographer’s perception about what he was seeing. Or whatever else the researcher may need to find in the image. Is that worth $100-$300 per? Is it even calculable?

So our Hegg collection might have a value on the open market for the right collector. And apparently a pretty good one, too. But we’re not working on the appraisal scale of the value of an old photo to an individual collector, our appraisal is about research value.  And in case you were wondering, we’re not intending to sell, because we haven’t seen anything yet to indicate that the income is worth the loss of access for researchers.

If somebody were to purchase this single photograph for us and donate it would I take it? Probably. Like I said, we don’t have a copy of this particular image and it might add nicely to the Hegg photos we hold.  I’ve seen a copy of this one before somewhere and I’m pretty sure a bunch of those other Alaskana-collecting archives and museums have a copy. In fact, I found a couple of other Hegg photographs taken the same day, same locale on the University of Washington online digital collections site (search Chilkoot slide Hegg). So if somebody else has it in a research collection that is publicly available, does it need be a collection priority for us? Again, I’d probably not say no to a gift, but I’m not going to deliberately seek a single item out.

Some other time we’ll get into the longer discussion about why I’m currently refusing to purchase collections or items. As noted above, there’s a lot more to this decision and a few gray areas too. To come clean, our Hegg collection? Was purchased in 2001 from a local Alaskana dealer.  I know we didn’t spend that kind of money on it because our entire yearly acquisitions budget never ran to those levels of funding. Previous archivists felt that direct purchasing was an important method of acquiring collections. I’ve not been convinced of that yet. But again, that’s a longer argument for another day.

In the meantime, if you have any family photographs or documents or audio recordings or movies or similar that you’d like to donate to our archives so we can make them available to researchers and preserve them, please contact us. That contact tab above will take you to a form you can use to send us an email telling us about it. I look forward to hearing about your treasures.

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