A slow economic recovery hurts archive preservation, too

The last year saw many historical auctions perform better than most auctioneers and industry spotters could have ever predicted. This growing trend doesn’t get a lot of critical attention in the mainstream media, well, except for the six-figure price tags. It appears our nation’s history is being sold off to the highest (private) bidder.

In early 2010 we published an article on the sorry state of the U.S. National Archives. For the last decade or so it seems the number of thefts has increased and many important documents have either gone missing or are how illegally residing in private collections all around the globe. In context, the condition of the U.S. archives is far better than some smaller nations, which have suffered a thorough ransacking during the last 25 years. This is something we all should be very concerned about.

In October an audit, prompted in part by the loss of the Wright Brothers‘ original patent and maps for atomic bomb missions in Japan, finds nearly 80 percent of U.S. government agencies are at risk of illegally destroying public records. Our own National Archives is backlogged with hefty volumes of records needing preservation care. The report comes more than a year after news reports of key items missing at the nation’s record-keeping agency. Some of the items have been missing for decades but their absence only became widely known in recent years.

Meanwhile, the nation’s auction houses are routinely discovering national treasures. In 2010 alone four major discoveries were sold for a combined $11.4 million. They include:

It’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. As the economic recovery takes longer to take hold, these documents will come on the market and fewer and fewer museums, charity organizations, foundations and universities will have the money to buy and preserve them to put on public display.*

Likewise, our government looks as though it will take a full decade to retool, reorganize and reinvent the U.S. economy to such a point that our archives will be a pressing concern once again. Can we afford another decade of ignoring these treasures? Doesn’t that simply invite thieves and ne’er-do-wells the opportunity to exploit the situation? Time will tell.

Oh, and you might be interested to learn that the patent file for the Wright Brothers’ flying machine was last seen in 1980 after passing around multiple Archives offices, the Patents and Trademarks Office and the National Air and Space Museum.

Perhaps we’ll see it pop up sooner rather than later.

*One of my favorite sources for tracking this trend (for modern and contemporary art) is The Deaccessioning Blog, a project by Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento.

-posted by Eric Bradley
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