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A museum storeroom on EBay

Institutions are rooting through the Internet marketplace, looking for cultural artifacts.

September 10, 2004|Mike Conklin | Chicago Tribune

In the sparse, northwest corner of Oklahoma, Waynoka is a small (pop. 993), hard-pressed rural community actually winning the fight to preserve a local heritage once richer and more colorful. Its weapon is EBay.

Sandie Olson, unpaid president of the Waynoka Historical Society, has gone online regularly for three years, doggedly pursuing collectibles related to the town's past as a U.S. transportation hub.

"I could probably conduct a seminar on how to build a museum this way," said Olson, who has stocked almost the entire local museum with her purchases. "The new technology is great."

EBay, a cultural tool?

This may come as a jolt to those who regard it as nothing more than a flea market for cyber geeks, but in the relatively short time it took the online marketplace to emerge as one of the most popular -- and profitable -- sites on the Web, it also has subtly evolved as a valuable tool for museums and galleries, big and small.

"I'm sure some of the more entrenched members of the community would be horrified to know their peers buy on EBay," said Melissa Rosengard, director of the nine-state Western Museums Assn., "but it's done more and more. It really comes down to how progressive and creative staffs want to be."

Whether locating research materials, acquiring items for exhibits or even selling artifacts, institutions such as the Henry Ford Museum, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum regularly join the Waynokas of the world to search out and bid on items on EBay.

"It's really served us well," said Tess Koncick, associate director for the prestigious John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla. "It's another scholarly mechanism, as far as we're concerned."

For the most part, we're talking about museums and galleries acquiring inexpensive collectibles in EBay's buyer-beware, auction format. Approximately 9 million items are listed daily, and the Internet service gives users streamlined search and tracking methods, as well as other aids, to sort through the goods.

EBay has 114 million registered users in 29 international markets. In 2003, there were $24 billion in transactions. In the second quarter of 2004, there were $8 billion in transactions and $1.4 billion of that was in collectibles.

Matt Gustke, a spokesman for the San Jose-based Internet marketplace, said EBay didn't separately track transactions by museums, galleries and similar institutions, but he was not surprised to learn EBay has become an important tool for them.

"What we do best is create efficiency in the marketplace where there wasn't efficiency," he said, "and, since collectibles are a significant part of what's offered, I guess museums would have a good chance of finding what they need."

To be sure, most cultural institutions continue to rely on traditional sources such as private collections, gifts from patrons and reputable auction houses for their big-ticket, costlier acquisitions.

Though EBay acquired an auction house in 1999 intending to incorporate it into an online venue for high-end antiques, paintings and similar items, it quickly discarded the concept. The field already was too developed and popular off-line to crack, Gustke said.

But recently upscale dealers such as the Toomey/Treadway Galleries in Oak Park, Ill., and Cincinnati have begun conducting sales on EBay and in other Internet marketplaces. "Five years ago this would not have happened," said Jane Browne, with the suburban dealer, "so the changes are coming fast." But thanks to its size and the assortment of things it offers for sale, EBay has a place in the mix.

"There need to be changes, like a central clearinghouse to authenticate items, but that'll happen and EBay's going to get bigger," said Milwaukee Art Museum adjunct curator Glenn Adamson. "You're going to see its uses grow because some applications are just made for it."

Indeed, two years ago the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago took down a railroad exhibit and found itself with an assortment of leftover locomotives, rolling stock and model buildings. The museum divided them into 40 lots and sold them in a seven-day auction on EBay. Each lot came with a letter of authenticity from the museum's head curator.

"I can recall people first discussing this maybe two or three years ago, and before that, people were pretty much in the closet about using it," said Devon Pyle-Vowles of the Adler Planetarium. "This definitely is a topic gaining more and more momentum in certain segments of our world."

The use of EBay is on the agenda to be addressed at next year's annual American Assn. of Museums convention, said Pyle-Vowles, chair of the organization's standing registrars' professional committee.

Kim Bauer, curator with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., could lead an EBay session for the association. He has made hundreds of acquisitions this way.

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