Western Reserve Historical Society defends selling donated antiques

CLEVELAND (AP) – A cash-strapped historical society sold antique cars and other rare artifacts to pay off debt, embittering many supporters who say the sales have been shrouded in secrecy, The Plain Dealer reported Sunday.

The Western Reserve Historical Society won’t go into much detail about what it has sold or even how much it money it has received, the newspaper said.

That secrecy hasn’t pleased former donors, including B. Scott Isquick, who was angry last year when the society sold a 1949 Indy race car that he had donated. The society also sold the only surviving “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” car of novel and movie fame.

Isquick said he and his friends are finding other museums to support.

CEO Gainor Davis defended selling the artifacts to bring down bank debt that reached $7.2 million at its height. The society’s revenues are back on track, she said.

The Plain Dealer, which reviewed auction sales and records obtained from former society members, said the organization has about $2.6 million remaining in debt. Most of its financial problems are left over from failed expansion efforts in the 1990s, when previous society officials sought to build a grand transportation museum at the city’s Burke Lakefront Airport.

Sales of many items, such as guns, Indian artifacts and furniture, have been kept private and quiet, the newspaper said.

Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati has sold American Indian art and artifacts for the society since 2002. The society defended the sale of approximately 400 lots at the time, saying that its mission was to serve as a repository for significant collections relating to the history or northern Ohio. It considered its Indian art, much of it donated prior to 1942, as an “orphaned accumulation.”

A search of Web sites of auction houses turns up numerous artifacts attributed to the Western Reserve Historical Society, including a rare early type of mechanical machine gun called the Gardner Gun, Confederate money and Eskimo-carved figurines.

Davis said the society has been advised by auction houses not to release the list of items since it would likely hurt sales. However, the auction houses regularly tout the society’s ownership when highlighting the items’ provenance.

For the sake of the donors and their heirs, it is difficult to publicly discuss what items are being sold, Davis said. It’s a sensitive topic.

“We’d rather not slap them (donors) in the face with it,” Davis said.

Officials hope a balanced budget and a new financial plan will persuade the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission to issue a $2.8 million grant, which will help the society pay for badly needed roof, electrical ceiling work and other upgrades.

Irving Jensen Jr., a former board member, said the society is on the road to recovery.

“They had to get the debt down, they had to save the institution,” he said.

Jensen recently bought a 1928 Rolls-Royce that he donated to the society in the 1970s, partly because he worried the organization would sell it, and partly to help the society. He supports the society’s latest artifact sales, he said.

“Your duty is to preserve, not to dissipate,” he said. “But sometimes you have to make choices you don’t like.”


Information from: The Plain Dealer, http://www.cleveland.com

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced.

AP-ES-03-07-10 1402EST