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Collecting the Uncollectible: Items that are Taboo to Some Pique the Interest of Others

by Liz Holderman (07/23/13).

Lee Harvey Oswald’s wedding ring will be sold by RR Auction on Oct. 24, 2013.

As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy approaches, one of the last available possessions associated with the event is up for sale. In Boston this October, Lee Harvey Oswald’s wedding band will be auctioned to the highest bidder. Experts estimate it will bring $30,000 to $50,000.

When I first read an article about Oswald’s ring I wondered who would buy it. A museum or other institute might want it for historical purposes. But would a collector? Many people own Kennedy memorabilia and others collect criminal artifacts. Some are just interested in the macabre. But that made me wonder about other collectibles of dubious desirability.

An eagle-feather headdress worn by Geronimo was given to an Oklahoma man in the 1920s. For years, his heirs tried to donate it (for a tax deduction) without any luck. When they tried to sell it in 1999, it was seized by the FBI and the sellers were arrested.

Some items are protected by law. In 1962, Congress amended the Bald Eagle Protection Act to prohibit ownership or sale of eagle parts (such as talons, eggshells and feathers). However, exceptions were made for people of certifiable Native American ancestry and for adopted members of federally recognized tribes (which seems to include several celebrities). Legal challenges have naturally resulted, including issues concerning the constitutionality of preferential treatment for certain races and religions. The IRS is also under fire, with lawsuits on the legality, value and tax deductibility of donations to museums.

Fossils and relics cannot be collected from federal, state or public lands (such as historic battlefields and national parks). And laws against importing ivory have certainly saved elephants’ lives. But it would seem that these regulations might leave heirs in legal limbo. Is it necessary to prove that your keepsakes predate existing laws, were passed down through generations or were found on private land? Apparently not, because ivory figurines, arrowheads, pottery shards, fossils and Civil War bullets are offered for sale all over the Internet.

And what about legal memorabilia that is just plain offensive or politically incorrect? What is over the line and what is OK? Is an 1899 first edition of the book “Little Black Sambo” off limits for a collector of vintage children’s books? Are girlie collectibles from the 1950s exploitive? And if so, is there a difference between a 60-year-old Playboy magazine and a topless plastic hula girl?

The sale of Nazi memorabilia is abhorrent to many (and is even prohibited in some European countries). But is it wrong to sell those German coins your grandfather brought back from the Second World War? The swastika is a symbol that dates to antiquity and was used by many civilizations before it was adopted by the Nazi party in 1920. It was even popular as a good luck symbol in the early 1900s and can be found on many U.S. postcards from that era. As such, it is sought after by some postcard collectors.

Even though ivory imports were banned in 1989, objects like this bracelet are sold with no date attribution.

Subjects concerning death have a wide variety of collectible areas, yet these can also be extremely controversial. Gravestone rubbings were once used to send the image of a tombstone to loved ones who were too far away to be able to visit the site. Many still consider it to be a viable hobby. During Victorian times, childhood mortality rates were high and, often, the only photograph of an infant was taken in a studio after death. Today, these tintypes are a fairly popular collectible genre. Original photographs of the famous Great Depression-era bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, taken after they were killed in a violent shoot-out with authorities, are not for the squeamish. Yet, they have appeared on Worthopedia’s Top 10 search list because collectors of outlaw memorabilia very often include death certificates, medical records and death photos in their acquisitions.

The decision to collect questionable material can vary based on differing sensibilities. It may reflect a point of view, fascination with the unusual or freedom of expression. Those who choose not to include things in their collection may do so due to concern about others’ feelings, personal disdain or fear of reprisal. But there is no doubt that hobbyists are split in their opinions on the subject.

The swastika symbol is abhorrent to many, but this 1909 Christmas postcard (made in the U.S.) predates the Nazi party.

Some collectors believe that the stylized work of renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) is ground-breaking in its artistry. Others are bothered by his erotic images and disagree with public funding of his posthumous shows. Similar disagreements can be found about the work of artist Damien Hirst, who’s sculptures feature large animals (like sharks and cows) housed in formaldehyde.

What are your views? Are there certain items in your collectible area that are taboo? Is there anything you wish you hadn’t bought? And here’s what I really want to know: If you had unlimited funding, would you buy Lee Harvey Oswald’s wedding ring? I think I might.


Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.

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3 Responses to “Collecting the Uncollectible: Items that are Taboo to Some Pique the Interest of Others”

  1. It’s interesting to look at various online marketplaces prohibited items such as ebay not allowing anything Nazi related, human body parts, things made from endangered animals etc. whereas there is actually a very real and legal market for all those things and more with certain restrictions.

    People will always be interested in the macabre, which is why we all slow down at accidents, and there will always be a market for items which delve into humanities darkest moments…

  2. Tom Carrier says:

    As if to say that collecting the uncollectible wasn’t enough of a draw, now comes an entire show that chronicles exactly what it’s like to do just that.

    The Discovery Channel has been airing a reality series about owners of a unique collectible shop that features stuffed cats, skulls and other such things called, well, “Oddities.” The title fits rather well with the unusual content that is the world of the uncollectible, or what we thought was uncollectible.

    My recent article about collecting ‘outlaw-abilia’ here on WorthPoint (http://www.worthpoint.com/blog-entry/collecting-outlaws) tells me that Liz is right, though. Turns out, buying memorabilia associated with outlaws or even oddities like Oswald’s wedding ring may just be too fascinating to pass up for so many.

    For me, I’ll stick with my outdated flags, thanks.

    Tom Carrier
    Worthologist

  3. I blogged, http://etsyvintageelite.blogspot.com/2012/06/oddities-for-sale-online-for-ripleys.html , about the popularity of oddities over a year ago wherein I attributed much of today’s interest a direct result of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon panel which was in almost every paper in the the US. Ripley’s currently has over 80 attractions worldwide called “Odditoriums” which they have to “stock”. This certainly impacts the marketplace two-fold, first by their purchases/buying power and secondly by creating a market of buyers.

    As web sites like eBay and Etsy continue to expand restrictions for oddities, as well as pre-ban antiques and vintage, interest continues to rise. I fear these restrictions only increase popularity and buyers resolve to purchase through any means possible, including the black market.

    While some things may not be what I want to collect, I believe a fair and open market helps to keep the marketplace legal and above board.

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