Recently, the article I wrote about three surprising collectibles hit a nerve with some readers. They didn’t like my example of taxidermy. But it wasn’t the first time people were offended by what we sell at auction. Almost weekly, I get asked by potential buyers, ‘How could you sell that?’ as they cringe and point to an item we are representing in an upcoming auction.
You see, people will collect just about anything and everything, from the mainstream items such as gold coins, fine art and classic cars to sports memorabilia, vintage toys and more. And, most of our weekly auctions contain collectibles and household items that are considered mainstream.
But then there are the controversial collectibles, such as a rare rhinoceros’ taxidermy mount, war memorabilia from our enemies in World War I and World War II, and other items that some people find to be offensive. Then we get an earful about how horrible we are to sell such things. Even antique medical appliances — some of which leave you scratching your head wondering how a doctor could have used them on their patients – that can be offensive to some people.
Why would someone collect an item such as a human skull? Well, that’s a question you would have to ask the buyers whom bought two of them in our recent auction. In this case, the human skulls were approximately 50 years old and were used legally as teaching devices in a medical school or used by lab technicians. Some might find that creepy. Others might recognize their scientific value. Whatever the case, as an auctioneer, I have a fiduciary responsibility to my clients to represent their estates regardless of my personal feelings about the items.
That doesn’t mean I would represent something illegal, nor does it mean I would sacrifice my morals. But, selling controversial items at auction is part of the territory for many of us in the auction world.
Collectors will always collect the unusual and unique, and sometimes those items can become part of the mainstream just by building a larger collector base that is interested in those items. A good example of this would be Memento Mori cabinet cards or other photographs. Of course, the more valuable an item is, the higher chance it has of becoming a sought-after collectible.
I’ve seen situations where people collect certain items to get them off the market, and others where people want to make sure history never repeats itself, so they collect to make sure the items are not forgotten or destroyed.
So, the moral of my story is that if you see something odd, unusual or what you describe as offensive, don’t discount that item based on your first impression. Do a little research and ask questions. You may find that there’s a story behind the controversial collectible or that the current consignor had a valid reason for owning the piece. Try not to judge so quickly, and if you don’t like it, don’t bid on it. Believe me, unless it is a themed auction, you’ll find plenty of other items to bid on!
Erik Hoyer owns EJ’s Auction & Consignment in Glendale.