Since you can't take it with you...
What to Do With Your Collection
IF YOU HAVE COLLECTED rocks, minerals, or fossils for a significant period of time, you have discovered a major problem - what to do with and how to store and/or display the materials you have collected. I have visited the homes of some "accumulators" where there is only one place for a visitor to sit, either at the kitchen table or on the sofa by the TV, because every other horizontal surface of the dwelling was covered with individual specimens or boxes of such. There is a time to decide what is worthwhile and what is yard rock or give aways. Unless hard decisions are made, you will never become a collector, only an accumulator. Collections are, at the very least, properly labeled and, at their best, well cataloged and properly stored, so that when needed you can easily retrieve a particular specimen to show someone. Just imagine how you might feel if a visiting friend expressed an interest in your favorite mineral species, say the amethyst variety of quartz, and although you had a superb self-collected sample, you could not find it. Having something readily available for you or someone else to view and appreciate is much of the satisfaction of having a real collection.
My personal collection has evolved due to a number of factors. First, several moves early in my career and my marriage. Second, waxing and waning of my interest in the hobby. Third, my increasing education from college, additional reading, and examination of so many specimens. I decided over 10 years ago to collect primarily Arkansas minerals, not restricting the size, but having some cut-off on minimum quality, unless only a few samples were available. I could have placed further restraints, such as self-collected specimens only, but when trying to build a representative collection of Arkansas specimens, I felt that self-collected was just too restrictive. Therefore, I never hesitate to purchase or trade for a specimen if it is interesting to me and the cost not too prohibitive. I do collect some specimens from elsewhere, but only as micros or thumbnails and then only if they enhance my understanding of Arkansas minerals and their mode of formation, distribution, scarcity, et cetera.
What to do with it?
Now that we have covered some guidelines as to how to decide what to keep in your collection and how to build a true collection of minerals (or anything), instead of having an accumulation, it is time to consider the question: "Now that I've got it (it being all these wonderful specimens), what do I do with it?" I assume that you have toiled many years to put together your collection and have self-collected, traded, and even purchased specimens.
Use your critical eye
Now is the time to put a critical eye on what you have. Think of it this way: if your house was on fire and only your mineral collection was in danger of being destroyed, what do you consider worth saving if you had only one beer flat to carry specimens in and only one chance to safely get those specimens before the fire destroyed them all? Rather a drastic viewpoint to take, but it puts the situation in perspective if considered carefully. The problem with most people is that they become emotionally attached to specimens in their collection. This is because people are people. In other words, we are emotional beings who "love" what we do and what we collect. Perhaps the collecting memories are really what is important and these objects remind us of how we acquired any particular specimen.
Sell or trade duplicates
Another way to look at this problem is to consider how much duplication there is in your collection. In my personal collection, I probably have 200 individual brookite specimens, ranging from very few cabinet and hand specimens to many thumbnails and even a few micros. Although this sounds like a lot of duplication, each piece was kept because of its quality, matrix, location, or other mineral associations. These specimens come from many different locations here in Arkansas. This selection of brookite is a collection within my larger Arkansas collection. There may be minor duplication, but each specimen is rather unique. However, if you feel there is significant duplication in your collection, then the best specimens should be retained and the rest sold or traded to another collector. Note I said a collector. I will have more to say on museums later.
Scientifically important specimens
Or you could try to determine what is really valuable scientifically or to other collectors. Note: These are two separate items! If you have specimens which you think are truly unique due to the mineral associations, size and quality of crystals of a given mineral, from a locality which has been closed to collecting or destroyed, or contain what you think may be a new mineral species, by all means consider the donation of these specimens to a museum, research, or archival facility, with no strings attached. Otherwise these scientifically important specimens will eventually have to be disposed off by your heirs, or worse yet, your estate executor. I have encountered some sad examples of what can happen when a person decides to wait on making these decisions.
A case history
An elderly man in south Arkansas who loved lapidary work had a wife with Altheimer's disease. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only 6 months to live. He did nothing. After he passed away, a local bank was appointed as executor of the estate because the man's wife was deemed incompetent to manage her affairs. I was called by the executor to come evaluate the "rock collection." I invited a knowledgeable friend to assist me. When we arrived at the house, we discovered that the garage was full of lapidary equipment - diamond saws, cabochon machinery, tumblers, two new faceting machines, countless lapidary books, and hundreds of sliced, but unpolished, Mexican coconut geode halves. In the side yard was several tons of raw rock, ready to be worked. This situation could have been easily avoided and he could have made some money to help care for his soon-to-be widow had the man made a reality check when he was diagnosed with cancer. He should have begun to get all his affairs in order, including assigning values to portions of his collection, equipment, books, and so forth. He then could have given his many friends an opportunity to help him by selling it to people he knew. Equipment has a relatively easy to assign value compared to evaluating specimen or lapidary materials.
Don't let it go to the landfill, unless you take it yourself
A second example concerns an individual who had spent his many active collecting years in another state, building an outstanding and well recognized in that state, fossil collection. After he was 80, he retired and moved to Arkansas, where he was active in the local club, though he no longer actively collected. He never considered the disposal of his collection and when he passed away, the family came from several states to divide up his possessions and sell the property. I was called by a rather desperate relative on the advice of a local club member. The house had sold and the relatives had 5 days to remove the man's personal items.
When I arrived, there was a 20-foot dumpster in the side yard next to the garage. I was told to take what I wanted and to throw the rest in the dumpster. Two days later I had finished my task, much to the relief of the relatives. They had no idea where to start, much less what might have any value. Because this collection was mostly self-collected, if it had been properly labeled and documented, it would have been of considerable value to the state of origin. However, as it was when I got to it, it was so much "flea-market" materials. If I had not been contacted, it ALL would have gone into a local landfill.
A third example concerns the mineral collection of the father of one of my college roommates. His father passed away shortly after I went to work and I never felt comfortable enquiring of the family about any plans to dispose of the collection, even though his son was one of my best friends. Years later I found out through a third party that they had sold the collection to a local mineral dealer. When I heard the price, I felt bad for the family because I knew I could have assisted in getting a better price for it.
Even dealers have problems
My last example concerns a dealer and his wife who had a shop years ago. They closed up their shop and moved back to Florida in the late1970's. At that time, part of their extensive collection of fossilized coral from Tampa Bay, Florida, was donated to a university. As part of the donation agreement, the university built a permanent display room for the material. However, the best of the collection was retained by the owners and consisted of several hundred polished matched coral halves. The husband passed away several years later, and his widow, now in her 90's and in poor health, contacted me to assist her in finding a repository for this collection.
Working through my contacts, I discovered that there was a state-run museum, the Florida State Museum. When I contacted the curator, he stated that, although they had many specimens from this site, they had few of display quality. They would be happy to display the collection on a rotating basis, but did not have the space to dedicate an entire room to this material. I put the lady in contact with the museum curator and thought I had resolved her problem rather nicely. Later, the curator contacted me to let me know what had happened. The owner met the curator at the museum with a legal contract containing all types of stipulations concerning the collection, including its display, types of cases, et cetera ad nauseum. Obviously no museum employee will sign such a binding agreement because situations may change due to financial consideration, public interest, and many other factors.
Don't let it happen to you
All these examples serve one important purpose - they indicate what can happen when a collector gets too emotionally attached to his/her collection to deal realistically with the situation. Don't get me wrong. I agree 100 percent with you if right now you're thinking, "Hey, where's this guy get off bothering me with this? It's my collection and I darned well do what I want to with it!" Great! The important thing is to DO SOMETHING and have a set of contigency plans. Don't just sit around and leave all the decisions to the family or, even worse, to the executor.
What about giving it to a museum?
Well, what are your options when we must make plans to dispose of our collection? Some people will say, "Give it all to a museum because they will save it forever." WRONG! Museum personnel come and go just as collectors do. Down through the years, different curators will emphasize what they think is the most important and relevant part of the collection for the public to view while they are in charge.
This may be the minerals, rocks, fossils, gemstones, or some other portion of the collection. When this happens the rest of the collection is at best kept in storage. But worse than this, in their attitude of "I know what's best," they will trade away irreplaceable specimens. In recent years, several collector's magazines have contained articles written by major museum curators touting their importance to research as repositories for new species and type specimens of minerals and fossils. This concept has merit, especially for access by well-known scientific researchers, but "sorry is your lot" if you wish to view a specimen of local origin in a major museum if it is not on display.
My examples? Arkansas furnished the largest specimen of free-milling zinc ore (smithsonite) in the world for display at the 1892 Columbian Exposition (World's Fair) in Chicago. After this event, since there were no funds to pay for the return of this several-ton specimen to Arkansas, curators at the Chicago Field Museum decided to sledge-hammer the specimen and disperse samples to other well-known museums around the world. Does this sound OK to you? Here we have the world's largest specimen so we break it up! I needed some information about this specimen and a photograph for an article I was writing for a collector's magazine, so I contacted the Field Museum in an attempt to determine what museums received the specimens. The curator informed me that although they had some large specimens of smithsonite from Arkansas, their records were incomplete and contained no source information. He did suggest that curators from the National Museum (Smithsonian) would have attended the 1892 Exposition and that I should contact them to see if they had obtained some of the resultant specimens. So I did just that, explaining the situation. Their response was that they had *thousands* of smithsonite specimens in the National Collection and that they did not have time to locate pieces from Arkansas, though they were certain that they had hundreds from the state. However, if I had the museum's accession numbers then they would be happy to send me information concerning the specimens. The problem is that the museum does not publish the accession numbers or any information dealing with the collections. So they have the specimens AND the accession numbers, not me! At this point, I gave up any further attempt to track the specimens. By now, you've got my point about museums. I am not against them and they have their place, but even concerning my own collection which contains some specimens of scientific value I am hesitant to donate specimens at this stage in my life.
Your second option is to set legally in your will how you wish to donate or dispose of your collection or certain portions of it to whomever you wish it to go. Talk with these people before you do this because, believe it or not, they may not want the collection. They simply may not wish to deal with it for whatever reason. In this situation, do not, I repeat, do not put any long term requirements on their receiving it if they agree to handle it. Nobody wants a legal hassle. My example? At the present time, I have two agreements with fellow collectors, one simply verbal and the other written in a will. The verbal agreement, which the relatives are aware of, simply gives me all the individual's collection and materials dealing with minerals, fossils, collecting and geology books, lapidary equipment, and so forth. As I dispose of it in any manner I see fit, I have agreed to giving half the resultant money to the nearest surviving relative and the rest is mine to pay for my time and effort. This is a reasonable working agreement between friends.
In the second instance, the will agreement designates that I am given the entire mineral collection of the individual to dispose of as I see fit. I do have a verbal agreement with this person to hold what I feel is the most important part of this collection intact until I have to disperse my personal collection.
Furthermore, I have a verbal agreement, which my wife understands, with two collector friends to dispose of my collection should I not live to do it myself. They are to go through the entire collection, no minor task, and separate what they both think should be donated to a museum of their choice. Once this is done, a donation value for these specimens will be assigned as a collection and my nearest surviving relative will receive a tax write-off or the museum(s) will not get the materials. The remainder of my collection will be sold by one of these individuals and my relative will receive one-half the proceeds. The collection will be divided into several groupings and sold as lots of special interest: Magnet Cove pieces, cinnabar and stibnite district specimens, quartz specimens, north Arkansas specimens, Granite Mountain specimens, micromounts, and so forth. You can see how this plan would bring a much better price. This is actually how I plan on disposing of the collection myself after I retire. I would probably go ahead and donate the museum material right away, once I start the process.
Sell it off
A third option, and I consider this a very viable alternative should my health be good during retirement is to travel around the country, selling my collection as I go to pay the expenses. No swapping or trading as I would not be in a collecting mode. This has the advantages of dispersing the specimens to truly interested people, getting the highest prices, and making a lot of new friends and associations during the travel. My wife even likes this idea!
Donate to local schools
Another option one should consider is to donate all your duplicate and average specimens to your local high school earth science teacher or the earth science department of a local college. Again, do not attach any strings to these gifts. Be certain all the specimens are adequately labeled before you donate them. You won't believe how happy the instructor will be to get this material. The school may even have or donate display space to exhibit some of your better specimens. Loan your specimens in this instance with a written understanding as to whether the specimens are donated to them at your demise, or who in your family owns the specimens in this situation. I think you may find as I have that once the specimens have been on display and people are seeing them, you may not want to keep them so much. After all, you can't take all this stuff with you, but you can leave something for people in your community to see, thereby remembering your generosity. That's what it's all about and that is about all you can do.
If you have any thoughts or comments about this article, contact Mikey
through email at the address below.