Oregon group’s sale of historic items disturbs donors

The Southern Oregon Historical Society owns the former Jackson County Courthouse in Jacksonville, Oregon, but closed the museum in the building in 2006. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

The Southern Oregon Historical Society owns the former Jackson County Courthouse in Jacksonville, Oregon, but closed the museum in the building in 2006. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) – The Southern Oregon Historical Society is selling off items from its vast collection, raising more than $155,000 and surprising some of its most ardent supporters.

The artifacts, none of which had a connection to local history, society officials say, have ranged from a pair of Tlingit beaded moccasins that sold for $854 to a Confederate flag that brought in $51,480.

Historic preservation consultant George Kramer said he hadn’t heard the society was selling artifacts. The Ashland, Ore., resident called it unfortunate but understandable, given the organization’s funding problems.

Dorothy Cotton, a 67-year-old Phoenix, Ore., resident who has donated items to SOHS in the past, said she questions the policy.

“It doesn’t seem right for some reason,” she said.

Artifacts scheduled for sale are vetted through deaccessioning – a lengthy process museums throughout the world use to rid themselves of items that aren’t appropriate to their mission but take up space and resources to manage.

“It’s a lengthy procedure,” said Pat Harper, SOHS interim director. “It takes more time and trouble than keeping the materials.” Deaccessioned items must be approved by the society’s board, she said.

Proceeds are used to care for collections, improve conditions in the collections storage facility, create traveling exhibits or digitize records so the collection is more accessible to the public.

Deaccessioning was an infrequent practice for SOHS until several years ago, when the society began weeding out its collection of items that don’t have any connection with the history of Southern Oregon. Since May 2009, sales have totaled $155,176.

In March, the Historical Society discarded an undated mattress and box spring because they had deteriorated and could attract pests. It also has gotten rid of deteriorated clothing, broken household items and hazardous chemicals, photographing them before their disposal.

Some artifacts have been donated to other museums or to the University of Oregon, which has a natural history museum. A desk used in the Phoenix (Ore.) General Store was donated in December 2010 to the Phoenix Historical Society.

Dozens of other artifacts have been sold at major auction houses such as Bonhams, an international art and antiquities dealer with offices in San Francisco. Examples include an Acoma polychrome jar that sold for $6,710 and a Zia polychrome jar that fetched $3,050. No deaccessioned items were from American Indian sites in Oregon, Harper said. Indian artifacts that are related to a religion or tribal policy could be returned to the tribes but are not sold, she said.

Many of the deaccessioned items could not receive the level of care necessary for their preservation and some have deteriorated, she said.

The society also sells artwork donated specifically to raise funds for SOHS. For example, art donated by Jim Killen and Bruce Killen was kept for three years before being sold in 2010 to benefit the collections department.

SOHS’s policy is to sell the items out of the area rather than locally to avoid any ethical problems.

“We don’t want to sell them to the best friend next door,” Harper said.

Deaccessioned items are listed on SOHS’s website.

The sale of artifacts is helping the Historical Society deal with its financial problems as it survives on a budget of about $400,000 annually.

SOHS used to get its funding under a 1948 levy passed by voters to preserve local history. Ballot measures 47 and 50, passed in the 1990s, consolidated all special levies into Jackson County’s general fund budget, meaning the county had control of the money.

SOHS sued the county on behalf of all the historical societies for their share of the levy, which brought in some $2 million every year. A settlement agreement provided money for a few years but relieved the county of any legal obligation to support the historical societies.

The county did provide a $200,000 loan to SOHS in 2010 as an advance on the sale of the U.S. Hotel in Jacksonville, Ore.

Ben Truwe, a Medford historian and former City Council member, said selling artifacts is a sad situation but, like Kramer, he found it understandable.

“The thing the membership should be concerned about is where does the money go,” he said. “It should go into an endowment, not just pay the electric bill. You shouldn’t sell off your collection to pay operating expenses.”

Kramer said selling a Hopi basket was “a lot better than the county selling the U.S. Hotel.”

“If the county had not hung the Historical Society out to dry by building up its rainy-day funds, this would not have turned into this problem,” he said.

Chuck Eccleston of the Rogue Valley Genealogical Society said SOHS for years accepted artifacts with no connection to local history.

“In hindsight, the society should have never accepted those kind of artifacts to begin with,” he said. “I think the society should have been the Jackson County historical society and the artifacts should have represented Jackson County.”

Cotton believes the sale of any artifacts should be approached cautiously because even something like a Confederate flag could have a strong local connection.

Cotton said she has mixed feelings about a loan she made to SOHS about 30 years ago. It was a turn-of-the-last-century projector and films that belonged to her grandfather, who traveled around Southern Oregon showing movies while trying to sell an “electric belt” that was touted as a cure-all. The projector was last used in 1903.

“He would sell snake oil,” she said. “It was like what you would see in the cowboy movies.”

Cotton failed to renew the contract, and SOHS took ownership of the projector. She said she wished she’d read the contract more carefully.

“I suppose it was my fault,” she said.

Cotton still owns one of her grandfather’s posters and some other memorabilia, including an electric belt, which she now would be reluctant to donate to the Historical Society.

She said when she loaned the other artifacts, she assumed they would be cared for by SOHS. Cotton said she doesn’t know what became of the projector and films she donated. They are not on the society’s list of deaccessioned items.

“Had I thought they were ever going to sell it, I wouldn’t have been happy,” she said.

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