A little planning can make a big difference for your heirs and your treasures
Preservation of Civil War Medical History
By Dr. Michael Echols, Ft. Myers, Florida
Last updated: Wednesday, September 21, 2016
You’ve spent years and a lot of after-tax income assembling your medical collection. Now, at a certain age or due to unforeseen circumstances (e.g., retirement, divorce, tax issues, death, health problems, or a concern for your collection), you have decided it is time to let go of your prized possessions. What do you do? How do you go about it? Who do you contact? Who can you trust?
There are multiple choices on passing along or selling your collection. Should you use an auction house or eBay?Donate to a museum? Sell directly to another collector? Sell to a trusted dealer? The two worst-case scenarios: You get a divorce and are forced by an attorney to quickly sell. Or, you die and your family sells everything at a garage sale! Think I'm kidding? Think again. I have witnessed all of the aforementioned.
I have seen multiple large collections go to auction or a forced sale and fail miserably. In all cases the realized prices for the collections were telling because they were so low. Why you ask? Here are several reasons:
1. The most common reason for low realized prices is because the seller bought medical antiques in isolation, without unbiased expert advice, and paid way too much or bought misrepresented items.
2. The buyer did not have particularly good taste or was a ‘gatherer’ rather than a true knowledgeable ‘collector’. In this case, there is not much anyone can do to help.
3. The buyer was an inexperienced student of the topic he collected and was taken advantage of by unscrupulous dealers or auction houses.
4. The collection was poorly presented or inadequately described by an auction house or internet sale, resulting in low bids which were not allowed to be posted with reserves.
There, I said it. Not everyone is a ‘knowledgeable’ collector/seller and they generally fail terribly when it comes time to sell.
So, what should you do? First and foremost… plan ahead. Assume the worst case scenario and do your homework because we guarantee you, no one else will do it for you:
1. Know your topic inside and out. Read, talk, and know everything there is to know about the topic you collect. Have a friend, dealer, or paid advisor who will serve as your brains. (If you have not done this all along, you are a prime candidate for this article and advice.)
2. Keep meticulous records of everything you buy. If you have not done this, get busy and reconstruct the facts.
3. Research the provenance or history of each and every piece. You are in luck, Google and Google Books makes this much easier to accomplish today.
4. Track the prices, dates, and from whom you purchased each piece on a spread sheet or ledger book (If you have a large valuable collection, do it on an Excel or similar spread sheet and do it right! Keep multiple backups too.) We are able to provide examples of this system, but a simple system is best.
5. Tag each item with a number or full name to relate it to your spreadsheet entries. Use removable stickers or string tags on the item.
6. Keep up with sales of similar items at auctions or on-line and note those sales with dates on your spreadsheet or ledger. Watch eBay and auction houses that specialize in scientific and medical antiques. (Or, you can buy auction prices-realized research on-line.)
7. Above all, it is your responsibility as the owner to weed out the junk in your collection before you try to sell it. You cannot expect to come to the table with a lot of odds and ends material and a ‘take-it-all-or-leave-it’ attitude. This is not a flea-market game. If you want to deal with flea-market buyers, you are in the wrong place. It’s just good business manners and you have to divide up the collection into groups before you make connections with major collectors. High dollar buyers expect to be treated as professionals and not flea-market dealers. If you miss or avoid this point, you are going to severely lose your shorts in any auction. Clean out the closet, get rid of the obvious junk (especially later (post-1900) material that simply will not sell) and prepare your collection for 'curb appeal' just like you would to sell a home.
8. If your collection contains rare medical books, papers, or art, you will need specialized advice on listing and valuation. Do not expect anyone other than a specialized medical dealer or knowledgeable collector to understand this arcane area of medical collecting. No dealer or auction house is going to be an authority on everything, or have a specialist who is familiar with every medical item. Even the largest auction houses are woefully poor at evaluating medical antiques, and especially at placing accurate descriptions, much less values.
9. As more information becomes available, update your spreadsheet descriptions and the reasons a given item is unique or has unusual value. File and preserve documentation with links and instructions about the item or items you are documenting. This takes serious time and effort. Again, no one but you can or will do it for your collection. Yes, you can pay a knowledgeable dealer to do this part, but do you really want to write-off that much of the appreciation in the value of your collection?
10. Photograph every single thing in your collection using a planned and consistent technique. Do not just take random photos, pretend you are going to publish a book and do a professional job or hire someone to take your photos accordingly. Photos will be invaluable for a sale or evaluation in the future, especially if you are in a burial urn. This is one of the most essential items on this list. It must be done digitally, not with film prints!
Now let’s think about the various options you have to sell your collection since this is what you really want to know:
1. Dealers: The bottom-line with dealers is they have to make a profit and have absolutely no motivation to pay you top dollar. When you buy you are their best friend. When it comes time to sell…well, you already know the answer to that one don’t you? Most dealers do not have the financial ability to make large purchases and will try to ‘cherry pick’ your collection. Unless you are unusually up-to-date on values, odds are you are not going to know how much your collection is worth and you will sell too low. Dealers have connections and buyers you will never know about, but again they obviously have to make a profit and it’s usually in the 50% or better level. Another problem with some smaller dealers is they want to buy a few high-dollar pieces, sell those and then come back over and over to ‘cherry pick’ your collection clean of all the ‘good stuff’. What it amounts to is you financing the sale each time the dealer returns and you end up with all the junk. It's not ethics, it's econ 101.
2. Auction houses: This can be a less than satisfying method of liquidation because of poor listings, lack of knowledge by the auction house employees about medical items, grouping of smaller items under one bid for their convenience, low attendance at the auction, poor timing, low-ball starting prices. And worst, they charge you a high price and then turn your sale results over to the IRS. Yes, individual, well-known medical objects, or surgical sets can do well at a known auction, but large numbers of obscure medical items bring next to nothing at auction because of lack of knowledgeable identification and descriptions in the catalog. Make no mistake, there are some outstanding auction houses in the U.S. The question is do they know 'medical' antiques. Few do.
3. eBay: If you have sold on eBay or have a friend who will do it for you, this is an interesting way to sell everything in your closet, especially the smaller items, but don’t think it’s easy for rare or high-dollar esoteric medical items. It is not. Consult anyone who deals on-line via eBay and they will clue you in on the problems, high costs, shipping issues, and dealing with PayPal. There are multiple dangers of being in the on-line auction business…that is unless they are asking to sell your collection for you at a commission!
4. Museum Donation: Yes, you can go this route and achieve the satisfaction of having your name on a display (which, by the way, is not guaranteed by the museum) or getting a write-off for IRS purposes. In case you didn’t know, most museums do not carefully store your gifts and may sell them if they need to raise cash to make another purchase. Curators can be a whole issue unto themselves. A dishonest curator can switch your donation with a less valuable item in his personal collection and his item ends up in the museum and your donation in his personal collection. On curator can accept your donation as a gift due to his interests and the next one sell your donation to fund his collecting interests. Smaller, specialized museums frequently go out of business and sell everything in the museum. Witness the Roy Rogers museum. They actually auctioned of 'Trigger!' They always want for you to ‘donate’ your collection, not ‘buy’ your collection. All you get is a letter to document you made the donation. If you have the right tax attorney, tax situation, and capital gains income this option can work. If you don’t, you end up with a nice letter you cannot use to pay your taxes, CPA, attorney, or for when you need that angioplasty.
Details about Fair Market Value determination for historical collections and the IRS
5. Selling to another collector: This can be one of the quickest and most satisfying methods to pass on your collection. You most likely will know the buyer, you can dictate the price, and odds are it’s going to be a private sale with you and your CPA controlling the terms and taxes. The best part: it is quick money all at once or made in structured payments without commissions going to auction houses and dealers. Individual collector-to-collector sales are about trust and preservation, not a middleman taking a cut of the proceeds.
Still have doubts: see this article published in Business-Week on collecting
Dr. Michael Echols
Ft. Myers, Florida
Contact Dr. Arbittier or Dr. Echols
Last update: Monday, December 12, 2016