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Frank Gray

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Out with the old, in with new treasures

If you visited the Indiana Historical Society’s history center in the last few years, you might have noticed one particular set of books on display under glass.

It was a bound collection of hand-drawn illustrations of birds and animals by John J. Audubon dating back more than 150 years, and every day someone would turn the page. There were nearly 600 drawings if you count both the birds and the animals (Audubon called them viviparous quadrupeds), so you could visit the history center every day for a couple of years and never see the same drawing twice.

Around 2008, the history center took the books, which were showing their age, off display. But if you ever got a chance to see them, here’s an interesting tidbit. The books you were looking at are worth more than $3 million.

Now the historical society has decided to put the books to work, so to speak. Next April, the society will put the collection of drawings up for auction at Sotheby’s, and if even the conservative estimated sale price is realized, the society will be able to expand its storage vaults and have enough money to continue to add to its collection for another 25 to 30 years, society officials said.

The history of the books and of the historical society itself is an interesting one.

The society dates back to 1830, when the state was barely old enough to contain anything historic. It was a library as much as anything, and accumulated what media relations manager Amy Lamb called an eclectic collection of items.

That’s where the Audubon prints come in. People bought the prints a few at a time back in the 1830s and 1840s, and some people had the prints bound into books when they had accumulated a large number.

The prints have nothing to do with Indiana, but in 1933 the historical society bought one bound batch of prints for $4,000, a hefty price back then, and $900 on another batch in 1951.

Since the 1980s, though, the society and lots of other organizations have been pondering what their true missions are and deaccessioning parts of their collections, Lamb said.

So poor John J. Audubon’s drawings are being deaccessioned.

There’s a good reason for it. The historical society could use the money. There have been occasions when it was unable to get important, historically relevant items.

For example, Lamb said, a letter from a Civil War soldier who was a member of a black Indiana regiment was up for auction. There was a bidder with deep pockets and the historical society couldn’t afford to buy it. Other items have slipped away, Lamb says.

The society has issued a conservative estimate that the collection of drawings, one of only 120 complete sets, will bring $3.3 million when it goes on sale. It makes you wonder what’s in your own trunk in the attic.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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