Medical Collectors Advisory Service

Advocates for the Preservation of Medical History


Liquidation of a pre-1880 medical collection

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? Or, the two worst case scenarios: You get a divorce and are forced by her attorney to quickly sell.  Or, you die and your family sells everything at a garage sale!  Think we are kidding?  Think again.  We have witnessed all of the aforementioned.

In the past, we 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 ‘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, resulting in low bids which were not allowed to be posted with reserves.

5.     The collection is post-1880.  There is little interest in post-1880 medical equipment and it’s not something auction houses will list.  (We cannot advise regarding any items which are dated post-1880, nor can we help with any type of furniture, electrical, or quackery material.)

There, we 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(s) 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.     It is your responsibility 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 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 do it before you make connections with major collectors.  High dollar buyers expect to be treated as professionals and not flea-market dealers.

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 medical dealer or knowledgeable collector to understand this arcane area of medical collecting.

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, we can help, but this is the hard part and not something anyone with a day job is going stop and do for you.

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 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!  We can make recommendations in this area regarding equipment and technique.

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 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 have to make a profit and it’s usually in the 50% or better level.  Another problem with dealers is they want to buy a few high-dollar pieces, sell those and then come back over and over to ‘pick’ your collection clean of all the ‘good stuff’.  What it amounts to is you financing the sale each time the dealer returns.

2.     Auction houses: This can be the absolutely worst method of liquidation possible 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 auction, but large numbers of obscure medical items bring next to nothing at auction.

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, 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, costs, and 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. Smaller, specialized museums frequently go out of business and sell everything in the museum.  They always want for you to ‘donate’, not for them to ‘buy’ your collection.  All you get is a letter to document you made the donation.  If you have the right tax situation and 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.  (Note, 2016: our previous experience is mainly relative to both public and private museums in the United States, so please understand that this advice does not apply to well financed and professionally run museums elsewhere in the world, especially the United Kingdom in particular.)

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.

If you would like to talk to someone who has experienced all the points in the above discussion, we are willing if your medical or dental collection is pre-1900 (antique) and you are willing to listen.  If you need advice on how to work with dealers or auction houses, we can help and there is never a charge for our friendly private advice.  We may offer to buy items or your whole collection for ourselves if you are interested.  Otherwise we will simply refer you, at no charge, to collectors who would be interested in the kinds of items you have in your collection with no obligation to you.  Unfortunately we cannot help you with any medical or dental item which is later than 1880.

Why would you want to talk to us?  We are involved in the medical profession and thoroughly know the details regarding medical and dental antiques.  We are all long-term medical related collectors who are trying to preserve our history, not to make a ‘deal’.  We can offer tips and suggestions about liquidation, gathered over many years via our personal contacts or medical antiques web sites, and it costs you nothing to communicate with us. 

We have friends and associates who are collectors in multiple areas and we understand your situation.  Our objective is to assist other doctors or individuals who may not have the advantage and knowledge we share among ourselves. We all know: “it’s good to have a friend in the business.”

Pre-1880 collector areas of special interest for which we have experts available:

All surgical instruments and surgical specialties; Ophthalmology; dental; OB/Gyn; urology; bleeders, scarificators, leech jars; pre-1880 surgical sets and instruments; tourniquets; medical ephemera (paper), medical college lecture cards; Civil War medical and surgical material, Civil War swords, CDV’s, and surgeon images; stethoscopes, pre-1870 medical and surgical  textbooks…and much, much more. 

Please inquire about topics you may collect and for which we may or may not have experts available.

Please Contact Dr. Arbittier for discussion or questions

Medical Antiques Index

American Civil War Medicine & Surgical Antiques Index

Contact Dr. Arbittier or Dr. Echols



Civil War Medical Collections 


Direct links to all medical & Civil War collections on this site                         

American Surgical Sets:

Pre-Civil War:  1 | 2  -   Post-Civil War:  3  -  Civil War 1861-1865:  4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8   INDEX

Medical Text-Books:

1 | 1a | 2 | 2a | 3 | 3a | 4 | 4a | 5 | 5a | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 9a | 10 | 11 | 12    INDEX

Surgeon General's Office Library printed catalogues: 1840 | 1864 | 1865
Medical Lecture Cards: 1 | 2 | 34 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21    INDEX

Medical Faculty and Authors:


Navy Surgeon Exams:

1863 Navy Surgeon Applicant Exams with Biographies   INDEX ONE | INDEX TWO

Surgeon CDVs, Images:

Army: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8    INDEX

Navy: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8   

Hosp Dep't Bottles, Tins, 

U.S. Army Pannier:

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

American Civil War Medicine & Surgical Antiques

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Last update: Monday, December 12, 2016