Breaking up is easy to do...

Respect for original order and respect for one's ancestors are clearly not a priority for the "Auction Kings." As a special collections librarian and advocate for archives, this weekend's episode of the auction-based reality show on the Discovery Channel troubled me on so many levels, I think I'll just let you count the ways...




In this episode, a local appraiser in the Nashville area visited Gallery 63 in Atlanta to assess a collection of Civil War papers. The author of these letters, Capt. Alva C. Trueblood (How's that for a compelling Civil War name?), chronicled his experiences in the Civil War as events unfolded before his eyes. A manuscript, a pair of journals, and a letter mentioning John Wilkes Boothe years before he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre are among the most fascinating items in this collection. It is an amazing chronicle of the Civil War from the perspective of a Union officer in the thick of battle, yet this officer's descendants see more value in opening a chili restaurant with the proceeds of their auction than maintaining the integrity of their ancestor's Civil War collection.

Capt. Alva C. Trueblood. A man of honor
who is now rolling over in his grave.
This is a one-of-a-kind cache that should be in a museum or archive, but the auctioneers at Gallery 63 see more value in busting up the collection into four separate lots to generate a bidding war and maximize the almighty dollar for their client.

Auctioneers are in the business to generate as much profit as possible for their clients and for themselves. It seems ironic, then, that while the collection was appraised at $10,000, the Auction Kings' strategy of breaking up this collection only generated $5,450, and the future restauranteurs seem strangely happy about it.

Breaking up a Civil War collection like this is really appalling, in my estimation. If you have inherited a collection like this in your own family, do us archivists and historians a favor... If you must auction it off to the highest bidder, please keep the collection together for posterity. But a better idea would be to have the collection appraised, and take the value of the appraisal off your taxes as a donation to a repository that will appreciate the collection's historic value in its entirety.

I believe that you cannot put a price on honor. Honor must be earned, not purchased. Alva Trueblood served his country with honor, and he wanted his sacrifice on the field of honor to be remembered through these letters. It's a shame that Capt. Trueblood's descendants did not recognize the historic value of keeping this collection together when it was right beneath their nose. Apparently, they were too busy smelling the chili.

  

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.