We all hope for our collections to become the penultimate, awe-inspiring, referred-to-in-the-Wikipedia-entry, kind of collection. We look for the rarest of the rare, the oddest and most beautiful, the most expensive and the least available. One day, many years from now, if we keep up with our collections, we’ll end up with something monumental.
All too often, though, collectors are short-sighted, naive, or simply do not wish to think of their collection outliving themselves. It will happen, and unless you’ve got an heir interested in becoming your curator, planning for the extended life of a collection is a necessity for any significant collection.
Significant needn’t mean large, however. Last night, I had a conversation about home movies with a coworker. I told her about my AOUW films from the thirties, and she told me about her home movies of the historic 1957 Fargo tornado. While neither of us have an enormous collection by any standard, our movies have a significant historical value that cannot be overlooked. Where should these movies go? My collection of films was obtained dumpster-diving, because the previous owner of the collection had no interest in preserving them whatsoever; I do not want them to end up in that situation again. I suggested checking with NDSU, which already houses a large archive of Fargo history. She thought the local paper might be interested in her film because the fiftieth anniversary of the tornado will be this summer. She suggested the current heads of the AOUW might want my films, but the AOUW ceased to exist in the 1940s.
The Fargo collection at NDSU, found at fargo-history.com, was donated by a private collector to the Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University. The Institute has spent the past few years cataloging and archiving his extensive collection, and will no doubt extend the life of the various photos and pictures held. I only know about the Institute for Regional Studies’ policy on accepting donations because I’d been a frequenter of fargo-history.com, and otherwise didn’t know what would happen to a collection like his. Historical collections are best left in the hands of a historical society, either private or institutional. Universities and museums are likely starting points, particularly the ones most interested in the focus of your collection. They are also the most likely to get value out of your collection; you may hope the Smithsonian might want your collection, but they’re less likely than the local museum to actually display portions of your collection.
Collectibles can often find their way into museums, too, but an entirely different breed of museum. Art collectors have art museums, but everything from dolls to action figures to vacuum cleaners have a museum in their name. If you plan on donating your collection to a niche-focused museum like these, be sure to check credentials first. Quite often, these museums are merely extensions of another person’s collection, and they might not be equipped with a curator’s education. If you’re concerned about your estate’s tax-liability, make sure the museum accepts tax-deductible donations. Get in touch with the museum early on, so they can expect the transfer and make arrangements ahead of time. I believe the Fargo history collection was transferred without anybody passing on, giving all parties time to make sure everything worked out.
Unfortunately, not everybody’s collection warrants a museum — but that’s not to say the collection is worthless. If you haven’t been keeping track of things for insurance purposes, you should do so for estate purposes. If the estate needs to liquidate the collection (which might happen, even if there’s a museum waiting for the donation) you need to keep track of accurate ideas of age, authentication where needed, and an idea of original purchase price and current value. Without these, it is unlikely the collection will get more than ‘rummage sale’ prices when it is sold.
Any of the above, of course, needs to be included in the will. Most collectors think of their archive like one of their own children — and it should be protected in the will as such. Explain how the collection should be handled, where it should go to, and if it needs to be sold, how the sale should be handled — without specifying, your years of collecting could end up on card-tables at a yard estate sale! Certain auction houses specialize in selling collections, and are able to make good use of your documentation of value and rarity. Not everyone can expect their heirs to take care of their collection the way they want — and I can guarantee that those heirs will be the most grateful for specifics on how to handle it.