Dr. Michael Echols
Who collects this medical stuff anyway?
The serious medical collectors of early (pre-1900) medical and surgical instruments are generally a quiet, well heeled, and knowledgeable group who tend to collect in isolation.
From what I have pieced together over the years, most if not the majority of the long-term collectors are doctors of some ilk. If you find a medical collectors group, you will note the majority of the collectors are MD's. There are also collectors who are in associated fields like, teachers, medical manufacturing, or dentistry. Some of the larger collections are in the hands of a few older physicians and museums who started way back before the internet and amassed significant collections via auctions and dealer networks. This is not to cast dispersions on any one who collects in other areas of medical antiques, but obviously my collecting interests are focused on the pre-1900 era and that is the bias of this discussion for now.
There are several general directions a collection can take:
General medical collecting which covers it all
Medical specialty: urology, neurosurgery, surgery, ob-gyn, etc.
Historical pieces, to include heavily used instruments and sets
European sets, mixed with some American makers
American made sets, mixed with some European sets
Individual instruments without regard to 'sets'
Condition collecting which tends to lean toward more complete and unused sets
Field-use collecting which will encompass a larger scope of sets and instruments without worrying about the condition.
These directions can cross and mix producing many varied types of collections which reflect the taste and personality of the given collector.
Of course museums collect and display many of the finest pieces, but some individual collections would approximate the large institutional collections if not in size, then in quality. Many of the museums acquired their collections from individual collectors who donated or bequeathed their lifetime collections. Most serious collectors are very quiet about their obsession and quietly display their collections only in their homes. (Based on my personal experience, this quietness about the obsession is due to the looks one gets when you tell others you collect old steak knives and bloody saws) There are a few collectors who display their collections in their offices or hospital venues.
In the past we have been contacted my multiple doctor/collectors who have collected in isolation and are now trying to sell their collections. So many of these collectors did not have the advantage of a 'friend in the business' and were subjected to dealers who sold them antiques of questionable quality or provenance. The best I can offer at this point is ask you to see the following advisory article about liquidating a long-term collection.
Most of us have been confronted by other members of our respective professions who do not understand or care about these historical items and scoff at their value or show little interest. It's their loss and our gain. You may or may not be surprised to learn that many sets are sold by dealers to parents of individuals graduating from medical school. These gifts place individual sets in the hands of non-collectors who may become collectors in the future.
Civil War collectors may be among the largest group of individuals who possess surgical sets. Most Civil War collectors try to place at least one representative set in their collections. My experience to date is that many of the sets purchased for this purpose are not really of Civil War vintage. However, collecting Civil War artifacts is a growing interest and sure to bury many more sets than strictly medical collectors will acquire.
Another group of individuals who actively collect medical instruments are the Civil War re-enactors. The re-enactors recreate surgical and medical dramas exhibiting procedures which took place during the Civil War . They typically are not interested in being all that precise about which era or makers' instruments are used for the drama, but they do tend to buy a lot of instrument material which would normally be repatriated with the correct sets by preservationists like myself.
Without doubt, the greatest concentration of surgical sets is most likely in the hands of family members of deceased doctors whose instruments have remained in the family. Many isolated sets are owned by individuals who will never be known or seen again within our lifetime. These individuals do not collect, but just 'own' a single set for any number of reasons. These are the people who typically contact me through this Website to do research or offer their heirloom for sale...
Most of the younger collectors at this time are a diverse and scattered group who have little or no connection with one another. There is no real "club" or organized group however I am in constant contact with a large circle of collector friends who stay in touch via email. I welcome others to keep in touch.
There are or were only a handful of active antique medical dealers who sell mainly medical antiques, many of whom also deal scientific or Civil War antiques. The patrons of those individuals are a closely held secret as there is much competition for the really choice sets which rarely come to market. When I talk about "patrons", we're talking the $3,000 and up for a single item buyers. With the advent of eBay, and the connectivity of the internet, more and more collectors are surfacing to buy pieces at auction on-line.
In general, the community of collectors of medical antiques tend to be a highly educated group with their interests concentrated in the area of their specialty if they are in the medical field. It is not unusual to find a specialist, like an ob/gyn, collecting the tools of the trade. Some of us are more eclectic and collect widely out of curiosity or the love of well made and historical pieces.
Getting started with medical collecting:
So you want to start collecting medical antiques? First, and foremost, arm yourself with every book you can buy. It's going to cost you several hundred dollars, but will help direct your search and ultimately save you thousands in mistakes. See the books section of this Website for direction to sources for the books I use, but note that my interests have narrowed and I do not list all collecting books.
Obtaining that first buy can be daunting, so finding someone to hold your hand and mentor you can be helpful. Connecting with other collectors is your best bet.
If you are going to collect Civil War sets, good luck!
Knowledge is your best advisor: buy books!
Contact Dr. Arbittier or Dr. Echols
Last update: Monday, December 12, 2016