A woman who cataloged her stuff
When I first saw the group of items on the table, I was drawn to the colored labels bearing numbers and id’s. They reminded me of deaccession tags that accompanied the stuff that museums consigned to auctions to raise money or to weed out their collections.
These were different, though. They had no museum name attached to them, but they were so meticulously done that I was sure they came from one.
But did they?
They were laid out on two tables, separated now and then by other items. They were a pretty eclectic mix, quite odd because they didn’t seem to go together. If they were anyone’s collection, it was hard to figure out the theme.
On one table were a lovely tall brown stoneware jar with a few nicks around the lip sitting alongside a gray stoneware jar with cobalt blue designs around the top. There were also a 3-piece yellow stoneware bowl set, a brown wooden bowl with the word Baribocraft inscribed on the bottom, some glass jars, Gorham bowls, a scrimshaw, a metal Stanley plane, two cobalt blue and white covered dishes, 2 National Biscuit Company saltine cracker tins, an orange coffee pot and more. One piece was labeled “Gold Witches Ball.”
I handled the items very carefully, looking for something that would identify the owner or museum. I’ve been at auctions before that were selling museum items through deaccessioning. It’s a heated topic because some folks feel that museums should not be selling items that were donated to them.
Curious about these items, I went looking for one of the auctioneer/owners of the auction house to inquire about them.
Here’s what he told me:
They belonged to a 93-year-old female architect who had taught at the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia. She lived in a trinity (in Philadephia, it’s a three-floor, three-room house with one room per floor and a spiral staircase). The house had built-in cabinets throughout and a bathroom with a plank-wood ceiling that she designed herself, he said. She had a lot of modern and Viennese items, Russian icons and more.
She was not a collector per se, he said, but “she had a real collector’s taste.” Like most of us, she probably bought what she liked or what moved her.
At some point, she went through her house and catalogued her stuff, describing where she got them and what she paid for them, he said. She also took photos and put everything in a binder. He believed that she gave the items to the college, whose reps used her catalog to determine what was left in the house.
The auction house was still completing the cleanout of her home. “There are lots of paintings we need to go through,” the auctioneer/owner said.
I’m sure these were superfluous items and that whoever consigned them kept the best stuff. The items on the table did not go for a lot of money. Most sold for less than $100, and some for as low as $10.
Later, I realized that this woman did what we all – including me – should do now: go through our items and catalog what we have, regardless of whether it’s a Van Gogh or an Uncle Bill’s. Then decide how we’d like to have them dispersed once we’re gone.
I see too much discarded stuff – family photographs, family records, someone’s mementoes – that should have been kept by a relative because it’s a part of the family’s history. Some may be museum-quality, important enough to help tell the story of this country and the lives of those who were here before us. They should also be kept as a reminder of our connection to our past and to things greater than us.