Martin Hartzold, bookseller

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Auctions, Confidence, Trust, and 20,000 Magic Lantern Slides.

Martin HartzoldComment

Auctions. Ohio is rich in auctions. It’s largely how “stuff” moves through the area. Whether it’s a local farm caller who’s been selling off of hay racks since the 1960’s or a nationally known house like Cowan’s, there are literally dozens of auctions within spitting distance of my homebase here in rural Northwest Ohio, each week. I don’t go to nearly as many as I should, but am fortunate to have developed the acquaintance of an outstanding stable of local colleagues in my few years here who either attend, or are hip to, just about all of them.

So, I was intrigued when a favorite scout went out of his way to alert me to an upcoming local auction last week of some 20,000 magic lantern slides. The sale was being held by a Stony Ridge Auction of Lemoyne, OH (suburban Toledo) a house previously unknown to me as a rather recent transplant to the area, but one with an anecdotally good reputation, solid online presence, and seemingly firm hold on the middle tier market in antiques and collectibles in the area.

On the block was a massive trove of glass lantern slides, one the auction firm was pitching as: “[…] the largest collection of Magic Lantern Slides, (20,000+), ever offered at public auction in this format.”

The time of year wasn’t great for me to go after much, financially speaking, but the obsolete format was more than intriguing. I’ve got a defined and unapologetic softspot for glass: negatives, slides, stereoviews, etc… If it’s breakable, hard to store, hard to sell, and hard to ship, count me in. I mean, above all, it has to be compelling material, but to be clear: I was interested and thankful for the nod. Though, immediately strange to me, and likely the main reason I am writing this, was the stated origin, pitched, by Stony Ridge, as:

 “[…] from the Reading Public Museum and Art Gallery in Reading [,] Pennsylvania. The slides had been stored and out of public view for over 70 years and date from late 19th century to first quarter 20th century"

I’m training myself to have a lot of questions going into any buy, particularly one with institutional ties, post- Pittsburgh. So, I had a few immediate questions: Why, if these were part of a collection, would they have been kept from public view? Was this just poor copy by the auction house, or was this some kind of clandestine deaccession? Why is this all in a rather obscure venue some 500 miles from the stated source (which itself is one of the richest areas of the country for ephemera, book, and antiques dealing in the country)? 

I quickly drafted an email:

“Hello. I am interested in many of the lots from your upcoming lantern slide auction.
I'm curious how the materials came to be acquired from the Reading museum.
Given the recent news concerning thefts from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library, I'm being extremely cautious about ex-library and ex-museum material (as I'm sure many others are too).

 Are the materials stamped 'withdrawn' or will there be any deaccession documentation available to buyers or is there some other way to verify these were properly deaccessioned, etc...?
Thank you and good luck with your sale!”

I received a prompt reply from a principal in the business that stated (with only the signature omitted here):

“We have 100 per cent trust in this consignment. Please feel free to bid without reservation”


They sort of went out of the way to not answer any of my questions. So, I escalated my inquiry to the Reading Museum (with the only omissions here being either redundant web links or personally revealing signatures):

“Greetings. I am an antiquarian bookseller located in Ohio. I recently encountered an advertisement for an upcoming auction to be held near Toledo […] On offer are approx. 20,000 lantern slides which the auctioneers advertise as having come from your collections. 
However, there is no public information on their deaccession being made available and the auctioneer has provided me with a less than satisfactory answer regarding questions of mine concerning proper deaccession, more information on their acquisition, etc...
I wonder if you are aware of this auction and/or the auctioneer's use of your Museum's name? I wonder if you could provide any information regarding these slides, whether or not this collection originates from your collections and/or whether or not it has been properly deaccessioned, etc...?”

I received another prompt reply:

“Thanks for your message.  The slides did belong to The Museum (as an educational resource), but were never part of the collection and never accessioned.  We actively chose to dispose of them via public auction.

 We sold them at Pook & Pook earlier this summer, and it appears that they are being flipped and resold at the auction you’re seeing adverts for in Toledo.

 Good to know. Not only that the materials were almost certainly legit, but that I should be corrected in using the word “deaccession.” These were teaching materials from a Museum long owned by the Reading Public Schools, and not necessarily part of its permanent collection. So, deaccession, wasn’t the proper term. “Discarded” maybe? Withdrawn? Either way, I still had questions.

I’d suspected the source of these slides might be auction. I’d done some diligent googling to try and find a possible sale record like the one the generous Museum employee provided and had come up empty. But now, at least it seemed, I knew the material was legit and bidding could commence. Though, I still wasn’t satisfied with the auction house response. Why the dodge of my questions? Why the hard pitch about this being: “[…] the largest collection of Magic Lantern Slides, (20,000+), ever offered at public auction in this format.” It was very obviously, given this new information, at least only tied for first place. 

Whatever it all meant, I was less than enthusiastic about bidding. The slides were split up in a haphazard fashion and part of a massive auction (nearly 1000 lots) that was sure to take all day on a Sunday. I’d compiled pre-auction notes on about 20 groups of interest, but when all was said and done, I’d placed only four bids, three of those successful, for a total of about $100. 

I think I had opportunity and reasonable justification to spend quite a bit more. It was a ton of interesting, uncommon material.  But, I just wasn’t into it. I’ve got plenty of things to point to for holding back: the Summer doldrums, a lull in cash flow, a glut of “stuff,” an office move in the works, etc… but the biggest reason was confidence; their response gave me none. And that’s all it took to give me pause and a motivation not to buy. That meter is on a hair trigger for me right now and, I have to imagine it to be the same way on the other end of any sales pitch I’m likely to put out there.  Privacy has long been a concern in the trade, but it definitely seems like a luxury no longer affordable when the material is institutional.