Valuation, and security, of specimens -Reply (fwd)

Peter Rauch anamaria at GRINNELL.BERKELEY.EDU
Fri Oct 22 12:59:37 CDT 1999

[Sally intended to post this to taxacome (sic) (too). Peter]
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 22 Oct 1999 08:26:35 -0400
From: Sally Shelton <Shelton.Sally at NMNH.SI.EDU>
To: nhcoll-l at, taxacome at
Subject: [NHCOLL-L:294] Valuation, and security, of specimens -Reply

Strictly speaking, appraisal can only be based on fair
market value. If that value is listed in a legitimate market
guide (auction catalogue, etc.), that is a fair appraisal
value even if it outrages you and me. Other spheres of value
that cannot be quantified or capitalized cannot be used by
an appraiser working under IRS rules. In this sense,
valuation only reflects current market value, no matter how
over- or under-assessed that may seem to be.

We've been dealing with this for a long time in various
types of collections, and the sky-high prices assessed for
certain types of fossil specimens started taking off even
before That Movie. (cf. my paper in the proceedings volume
of the 1995 Manchester, UK, symposium on the value and
valuation of natural history collections.) The sober truth
is that there is an increasing market for certain types of
specimens found in museum collections (now meteorites are
closing in on fossils; raptor feathers have had a market,
though that seems to be waning; tanned furs and hides
definitely have market value; etc.); that market value is an
external factor that museums cannot control or ignore; that
this must be taken into account in planning acquisitions,
security and policy; and that the art museums are laughing
at us because we are just now coming to grips with the
problems that they deal with daily.

For collections without fair market value (i.e., there is no
sale or auction catalogue reference), there have been many
suggestions, ranging from avoidance to a careful calculation
of sheer replacement value. The latter is of use in some
insurance estimates that would otherwise not be possible,
but it is a cumbersome process for large collections.
(Setting an arbitrary monetary value per specimen may look
like a solution, but has not held up well to IRS scrutiny.
Moral: don't pretend to be an appraiser; if  you need one,
get a real one. Besides, it is usually considered to be a
conflict of interest for a museum employee to make
appraisals or recommend appraisers to donors.)

I do not think we can ignore the issue of market value
simply because we wish it weren't out there to complicate
scientific collections issues. High prices for fossils
caused a rash of thefts, lootings, and land damage across
the country before we knew what had hit us. Minerals have
always been market-driven collections. Now meteorites are
becoming the obsession of the former crystal-wearers (they
swear they can feel the cosmic vibrations). Check it out on
eBay, or the listings posted to the Museum Security Network
(I make it a point to post all listings of natural history
thefts that I see). There are some collections that have
little or no market value (though their scientific value is
enormous); there are some that have nothing but market
value; there are some that have both.

As far as market value affecting scientific valuation:
depends on how you're defining your terms. An appraiser can
only use market value to produce a monetary assessment of
the worth of the collections at a given point in time.
Scientific value does not directly enter into this, though
scarcity can. An insurance estimate using replacement costs
may or may not take curatorial time into account. The better
the collections are documented and used, the easier it is to
come up with this, though replacement value is never going
to be a pinpoint accurate value in the eyes of the IRS the
way a qualified appraisal will be.

I don't think that a market value (which is in most cases a
completely external factor that changes rapidly and
unpredictably) needs to enter into the discussion of
scientific, historic and/or educational value. It must,
however, be taken into account when collections security and
transactions are discussed. For a while there, fossils had
values on the legitimate (never mind black) market like
diamonds, and were being stored and protected like rocks in
a cigar box. You have to know what value the world outside
the museum sets on your collections even if you don't like
it. High values mean that the world will not stay away.
Educate your public about all the other values that will
last longer than market value, and check your locks.

Sally Shelton
Collections Officer, NMNH
Smithsonian Institution

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