Updated: May 23, 2020
Serious collectors believe you can. Those who hunt historical documents and photographs seem to be some of the most passionate collectors. An auction house in AZ had recently represented a large collection of just this sort thing. The collection encompassed all manner of printed and handwritten ephemera, along with early photographs and their negatives. When you see a collection like this, it’s hard not to get drawn into the time capsule. Take one name or event and start Googling, and suddenly it’s been three hours! It’s easy to understand the passion that a collector has for this type of memorabilia.
This recent collection represented Early Arizona from the Territorial Period up until the 1950s. Still very early in the history of the State. Things like grocery lists, court summons and mining company payrolls uncovered an untold tale. I call collections like these, worm holes. As in, it’s easy to get sucked down the wormhole and fantasize about the people you are researching and historical relationships. And don’t get me going on photography. We all know Ansel Adams and the like, but some of the lesser known photographers captured amazing glimpses into the past. If you have a passion for history, you can flip through things like these for days.
Okay, I almost took you down my own wormhole, but I bring up this collection for a reason. Old documents and photographs are some of the most often discarded articles when estates are cleaned out. The sad fact is, many letters and photographs do have little value, but to a trained eye, there can be hundreds or thousands of dollars in forgotten boxes, old filing cabinets and the like. The right name on a letter, a photograph or hotel registry can mean a lot to a collector and a lot of cash for you. Also, knowing that someone is carrying on this historical record has got to mean something. Some of these collectors may be seen hundreds of years from now as the great preservers of the record. I have to believe we won’t just want all of our history stored on a Pinterest board. The real thing is still best.
If you don’t believe there is a demand, just search historical document collectors. You’ll see buyers and sellers’ websites everywhere. A few Arizona Territorial Legal Documents can bring $150-200. But find a Wyatt Earp Period Signed Document in there, and POW! One recently fetched $55,000! Early 20th Century Photographs of the First Mesa Villages were fetching $300-$500 a few years back at sale here in Phoenix. So, if you find a stack of old photographs or historical documents at a garage sale, you might have hit the lottery. I like your chances better than the Powerball.
It might be an old way of thinking, and perhaps in the future, vintage email files and Windows ‘95 folders will have a collectible market when someone figures out how to monetize them. And I am sure we will buy them with Bitcoin. In the meantime, I am happy passing through historical ephemera wormholes.
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