Monday, April 25, 2011

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

To celebrate Preservation Week, I’ll be offering three blog entries this week that offer a personal perspective on some general preservation issues.  This is the first.

When I used to give tours at a famous rare book library, I quickly learned that many people associate value with big dollar figures.  I’d show them an autographed first edition of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and the most common response would be, “Wow!  How much is that worth?”

This may be a reasonable question for an appraiser, but it’s one that I’ve always struggled with.  The question is loaded with Antiques Roadshow anticipation.  It’s a request for a pricetag.  But let’s consider that first edition of  Moby Dick.  It wasn’t particularly valued during Melville’s life.  You could have picked one up fairly cheap.  Now it’s considered one of the great American books and a rare first edition would likely elicit a stratospheric bid at auction.  But value is a fickle thing and there’s no guarantee that this current standing will last.  Back in the days when Moby Dick was considered just another novel about whaling, books by Edward Bulwer-Lytton were very popular.  In the 20th century, Bulwer-Lytton’s value plunged, while Melville’s stock rose.  Very few Victorians would have seen that coming.

Conservators are asked these “value” questions all the time.  According to the profession’s ethical standards, they’re not supposed to respond.  Value questions are for appraisers, not for conservators.  Here’s why –

When you bring in an item from your family collection to be treated by a conservator, you want it to receive the same quality-level treatment that the conservator would bring to a Picasso etching or an illuminated manuscript.  The conservator simply respects that the item has value to you – possibly more value than you’d ever assign to a Picasso.  The item is important to you.

“Yeah.  Sure.  But will the treatment increase its value?”

Well, to consider an example from fiction, what’s the Maltese Falcon worth?  Is it just a black statuette or are there priceless jewels hidden beneath the enamel surface?  Kasper Gutman puts a value on the Falcon greater than human life.  As he says to one of his henchmen, “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.”

Detective Sam Spade has a cannier understanding of the Falcon’s value:  It’s “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Realistically, you can’t pin a pricetag on a dream… or on the items in a family collection.  I look around at our family letters, photos, drawings, and oil paintings and know that these are the stuff that dreams are made of, regardless of what they might ever fetch on Ebay.

© 2011 Lee Price

1 comment:

  1. That's true you can't put a price on your own history. I recently found a bunch of old photo albums from my grandma full of beautiful old pictures from the 40s and all the six decades later. Sadly help came too late for many of them since the best and oldest are almost destroyed. Now I have a new weekend project trying to conserve and digitally restore them. To me those pictures are priceless.