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Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Private Collectors. Blessing or bane?

The following paper was submitted by David Miller to the 4th Australasian Tri-Territorial Heritage Conference May 2004, Melbourne, Australia. 

Well, I have to admit that in my 55 years I've probably been called a bane a lot more often than I have been referred to as a blessing. What I don't quite understand is why should being a private collector of Salvation Army memorabilia make me a bane to anyone? What is it about my hobby that anyone should seek to label me as a bane? All of the material in my collection is honestly obtained from legitimate sources and I collect for pleasure not profit. So why should I be referred to as a bane?
I have had it said to me that private collectors prevent official Salvation Army Heritage Centres and museums from obtaining items for their exhibitions. This I find a very hard pill to swallow. Firstly most of the items that are in the hands of private collectors would not be wanted by a Heritage Centre as they would not be of sufficient historical importance. Secondly many of the items started off as being either the property of The Salvation Army or of a Salvation Army Soldier. Before anyone starts criticising private collectors maybe it would be wise to consider where dealers who sell to private collectors obtain the items.
For example, our local corps was moving premises and hired a skip to clear the old hall. Knowing from past experience what was likely to happen, I contacted the CO and asked if I might have a look through the so called rubbish before it was consigned to the tip. Captain readily agreed, after all it was going to the tip that afternoon. What a sight greeted me when I arrived. Old S.A. instruments, song books, a print of the founder, just to name a few of the items that were headed for the dump to be seen no more! Even the black garbage sacks yielded many items of interest to collectors. Despite the fact that Captain was prepared to give me the items, I did a quick calculation and told her that they were worth over £1,000 on the open market and that I was prepared to sell them with all proceeds going to the corps. In fact we raised over £1,500, a more than useful addition to corps funds and certainly a good result for a skip full of rubbish!
At one time I was approached by a Salvation Army Charity shop and asked if I was interested in S.A. items as they had no market for them. Records, books, china etc. were being dumped as worthless. Even records of the Founder's voice had been consigned to oblivion! A steady supply of items ensued. Nothing that special, but collectors would certainly be interested. Another successful 'rescue' operation and another nice addition to corps funds.
Why are these two examples so relevant? All the items in question were once in the possession of members of the Salvation Army. Were they offered to a Heritage Centre? Or archived within the corps? No! they were on their way to a land fill site to be seen no more! Who prevented this happening? A private collector! At least now these pieces are in the possession of people who will preserve, research and care for them. These are not isolated instances, I know many private collectors who could relate similar stories. What is it about some Salvationists that they seem to show so little interest in the heritage of the great Army to which they belong?
As some will know I own a web site, http://www.sacollectables.com/, which seeks to bring together collectors of Salvation Army memorabilia. What you may be surprised to learn is that I have a mailing list of over 300 collectors throughout the world. I know of many more who do not have access to the internet so are not included in this figure. Private collectors exist and are not going to go away. The question surely must be do official Heritage Centres and museums work with them, or merely complain about their existence? The official collections cannot hope to archive every single piece of Salvation Army memorabilia, although I'm sure that there a few pieces in private hands that they would like to have. The answer is very simple. Work with private collectors. Ask them for pieces from their collection to be made available on loan to the official exhibitions. I would certainly co-operate, and I know that most if not all of my fellow collectors would do the same. If this idea appeals I would be prepared to make my web site available as a place where Heritage Centres can track down specific items they would like to add to their displays.
I often hear that the official Heritage Centres and museums are short of money. If this is the case let's get together and set about raising some funds for this important work. My web site will certainly help, and I'm sure my friends at the Salvation Army Philatelic Circle, the Christian Mission Historical Association and the Salvation Army Regal 78 Association would also lend their support. Maybe private collectors would be prepared to donate a piece or two to be sold to raise some funds. There must be a wealth of items of interest to collectors languishing in Corps throughout the world that hasn't seen the light of day for decades. What a cash injection that could provide if it could be harnessed. The way forward must be through working together. If we allow an 'us' and 'them' attitude to develop then not only do we all lose, but so do future generations who are yet to be inspired by what the Salvation Army has achieved. Our aims and objectives are certainly not dissimilar, co-operation is the only sensible way forward.
The International Heritage Centre in London is a veritable mine of information for Salvation Army collectors and historians. All queries and information requests are dealt with promptly and in great detail. In my humble opinion it is the way it should work. The more people that become interested the better chance we all have of preserving artefacts and memorabilia to inspire future generations to continue the wonderful work of the Army we all love. In the past I have been criticised for the ever increasing interest in Salvation Army memorabilia and for the increased prices of items. As far as prices are concerned that's down to what the individual is prepared to pay. The market obviously decides its' own level. Personally I think some of the prices paid are scandalous, but who am I to criticise others? What I do know is that with the wealth of new collectors there is more Salvation Army memorabilia being preserved and cared for than ever before, and if I stand accused of being a part of that then I plead guilty as charged and await my sentence!
Are private collectors a blessing or a bane? I believe that it is, to a large extent, down to the way the official Heritage Centres wish to view them. We stand ready to work with you, but unless you allow us that privilege then I fear that it will never be. I pray that out of your discussions and deliberations will come a desire that we can all continue to be inspired by our collections, and that in a spirit of co-operation and mutual respect we can work together to attain our objectives.