A sidelong look into the world of special collections dealers

First of all, if you’re not listening to This American Life, whether or the radio or in podcast form, you should start. But this past week’s episode, entitled Original Recipe, gives us a sidelong glimpse into the mindset of special collections dealers. As should become very obvious, this is about a unique situation that happens very rarely. But I think that, throughout the course of the story, John Reznikoff says things that give you insight into the mindset of dealers more broadly.

Briefly, Reznikoff is a document expert, handwriting expert, and big money dealer of artifacts and documents. In 1993, he was befriended by a man who told him that he had documents proving that John F. Kennedy paid off Marilyn Monroe and that he had ties to the mafia. These documents were verified as true by other experts and sold. They, of course, turned out to be forgeries.

But the part that interests me is more in the set up to the story, before Reznikoff is duped. When he gets a collection of items, whether it be artifacts or documents, his goal is to make as much money as he can off it. For example, he sold President Obama’s first car, a Jeep, but was allowed to strip many of the original parts out first, which he then sold as well. This mindset, applied to cars, is one thing; but when applied to special collections material, it becomes much more of a problem. The items with which Reznikoff is dealing, the artifacts and documents of the rich and the famous, can be sold as individual items because there are people out there willing to pay thousands of dollars to seem closer to someone famous. But through the power of the Internet, more people think that they can make money by chopping up collections and selling them piece by piece. We, as archivists, need to reach out to amateur dealers and try to get them to at least understand where we are coming from and why keeping collections as a whole can be important.

The other half of the episode of This American Life is about the search for the original recipe for Coca-Cola. They talk, briefly, to Coke’s corporate archivist, asking him questions about the recipe for Coke that was found in their archives. I know that they have trade secrets to protect, but their archivist seemed to be more focused on obfuscating information rather than providing access. That may be a byproduct of the mythology that Coke has built around the original recipe, but it still seemed off coming from an archivist.

If you have listened to the episode, what do you think?

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