Liquidation of a pre-1880
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:
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.
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.
The buyer was an inexperienced student of the topic he collected and was
taken advantage of by unscrupulous dealers or auction houses.
The collection was poorly presented or inadequately described by an
auction house, resulting in low bids which were not allowed to be posted with
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:
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.)
Keep meticulous records of everything you buy. If you have not done
this, get busy and reconstruct the facts.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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
Now let’s think about the various options you have to sell
your collection since this is what you really want to know:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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
areas of special interest for which we have experts available:
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.
about topics you may collect and for which we may or may not have experts
Doug Arbittier, M.D.