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Restored 19th-Century Stagecoach
Goes on the Auction Block
by Bob Brooke

The auctioneer’s hammer came down at $16,500 for a fine Midwestern Stagecoach from around 1849 at the July 9 Deaccession Auction presented by Cordier Auctions & Appraisals of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The final bid for the stagecoach far exceeded its $2,000 to $4,000 estimate. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) authorized the auction to weed out extra items from its vast collection and to raise money. A touring car and a New England mail sleigh also brought in some big bucks.

Over the last 20 years or so, deaccession, or the sale of extraneous items from museum collections, has become a big part of the antique auction industry. One reason is the lack of adequate storage space at many museums and the other is money. Most museums are strapped for funds most of the time. While many rely on grants and gifts from benefactors, usually the amount of money needed to maintain their large collections far exceeds the amount raised.

There was a time when museum curators wouldn’t think of selling off items from their collections. Wealthy donors would outright give or leave antiques and memorabilia to them in their wills. No museum could say no because most of these objects came from individuals or families who had given the museum a good deal of money over time. And everyone thinks that what they’re donating is important.

The Anthracite Heritage Museum, Cornwall Iron Furnace, Drake Well Museum, Ephrata Cloister, Eckley Miners' Village, Fort Pitt Museum, Graeme Park, Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, Somerset Historical Center, Washington Crossing Historic Park, and the State Museum of Pennsylvania all stored items sent to the auction. Each historic site contains grounds and buildings containing hundreds of artifacts pertinent to use at the sites. Most likely their collections included duplicates of some items or poorer examples of others which were redundant.

The auction featured a variety of historic items, including 1960s travel posters, a stagecoach, mail sleigh, early automobile, foundry patterns, books, furnishings, photographic records, agriculture and textile working tools and equipment, prints, engravings, and an assortment of 19th and 20th century household and merchandising objects.

The PHMC is the official history agency of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Created in 1945, it is responsible for the collection, conservation, and interpretation of Pennsylvania's historic heritage materials. The agency contracted Cordier to auction items that had no special significance to the history of the Commonwealth, or that duplicated what was already in the state’s collection.

Active online, floor, and absentee bidding pushed many lots of the auction to realize higher prices, raising a total of almost $65,000 for the museum commission. Among the highest performing lots was a 1909 Zimmerman Touring Car, which was one of only 12 existing Zimmermans known and the only known Touring Car. Interested bidders volleyed over the historic car before it finally finished at $26,000. At a hammer price of $2,300, a 19th Century New England Mail Sleigh was also a standout.

Other exciting pieces included an 18th Century edition of Martyr’s Mirror from the Ephrata Cloister, selling for $900, an early poster of Rome, selling for $600, several antique charcoal buggies, selling for $475 each, and a painting attributed to DeWitt C. Boutelle, a 19th century Pennsylvania artist, which brought $750.

Prior to being consigned for sale, the PHMC offered the objects to other PHMC properties as well as other historic museums state and nationwide. Money raised from the auction can only be used to buy or conserve artifacts that enhance the PHMC’s mission of preserving the Commonwealth’s natural and cultural heritage as steward, teacher and advocate for the people of Pennsylvania.

Deaccession auctions such as this enable collectors of fine and specialty antiques to acquire items that they couldn’t otherwise.

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