World’s Columbian Expo Research Comes in All Shapes and Sizes

I have been terribly lax in filling these blog pages. If a few paragraphs showed up every time I thought of something interesting or planned to add an article we would be overflowing with text.

That it was 10 weeks or so since my last article is embarrassing. Reasons, yes; excuses, no. The last post discussed our beginning efforts with the John Kennel Columbian Collection. I hardly had a clue then as to the scope of the collection, not to mention the mediclous work John devoted to it. I have for many years said that collectors and collections were under appreciated for their historical research value. Having now spent 47 years as a working professional in history and publishing, I have seen repeatedly the hisorical value of collectors, their knowledge and their the valueof their material.

Working with the Kennel Collection since bringing it back from Ohio (to the Seattle area) the first week in April has continually underscored this value. I was retained to do more than sell the Kennel Collection. The fact that The History Bank is small and specialized made us the best choice; but so did the fact that I view Columbian souvenirs as artifacts. My job includes researching and describing some 4,000 items. Major auction houses do a good job at the thin upper layer of such collections. They do a poor job on the other 90-95% of the items because they cannot afford the time or manpower to spend on every $50, $100 or even $500 item. They tend to “lot” material: “Here are 15 tickets” with a one-sentence description. Collectors love these lotted items in auctions. It’s how they–we–make bargain purchases. Generally, the auction house lacks the detailed information on each of the items that make up such lots, so they may toss in a half dozen $500 rarities and the bottom line is the buyer ends up with a market value of say $2,000-$3,000 for a purchase price that is often ridiculously low–$500 or $1,000 for example.

Heike Kennel, John’s widow who worked alongside him collecting for several decades, was well aware of this. When Heritage sold my ticket collection for $40,000 in 2008 this was a point of contention and very evident. One rare ticket fetched by far the most ever for a Columbian bit of paper–$3,000–but there were lots of 15, 20 and even 37 tickets lumped together. My complaints run deeper than dollars, and Heike selected us to sell the collection because I will devote far more time to it than any auction house would or could, and every ticket, medal and souvenir is being described with a historian’s and collector’s skill.

I knew John, but not well, and I was aware of his passion for the Columbian Expo. Once I took possession of that office-full of material I realized that he was the embodiment of my belief that collectors and collections are invaluable to authors, historians and researchers alike.

In this first 10 weeks of working with the collection I’ve been repeatedly impressed, astounded, at the information that accompanied so many of the items. Many of you reading this blog may not be serious collectors or collectors at all. One publication that is critical to working with Columbiana is the small paperbound reference written by Nathan Eglit in the 1960s. It was self-published and finding a copy today is almost impossible. As a publishing professional, I found myself annoyed and frustrated with Eglit’s book. It lacks any organization and the index is likewise weak and often useless. But over the years I got over it. Somehow, Eglit assembled this amazing compilation of primarily medals from the World’s Columbian Exposition. A few tickets and souvenirs are tossed in with no apparent reason or explanation. But if you find yourself with a medal or token from the fair, the odds are very good that it is listed in this resource. You may have to thumb through the entire 142 pages to find it, since there is often no other way to do so.

Today, as with the Kennel Collection, the majority of 1892 and 1893 Columbian medals that were struck will be referenced in “Eglit,” as the book is known. When one is discussing or selling a medal that is “unlisted,” it instantly has cachet as a rarity. Eglit does not have a copyright notation, a publication date or a publisher’s address. It was printed about 50 years ago and still, when we discover a medal that is “unlisted” THAT is the rarity. How he was able to compile something so complete more than 50 years ago is truly amazing.

In beginning the process of researching, identifying and listing for sale Kennel’s medals, the first reference is of course Eglit. Kennel’s enormous collection includes about 800 medals, many in duplicate. John created a template for use with his medals, a form he filled out for each piece. Line items include description, metal composition, size (millimeters in diameter)…and Eglit number. Few collectors are so thorough; this information is like a museum reference. Identifying a medal in Eglit can be slow and tedious. It is the norm, not the exception, to start at the beginning of the book and read your way through until you find a listing. Attempting to use the index to match a medal is a poor substitute for organization. I began my work with the Eglit number provided on more than 500 of Kennel’s medals.

I began the process of selling Kennel’s collection–tickets, paper, photos, medals, 3D souvenirs and so on–by creating a catalog. The catalog is unlike those a museum or auction house would create. My intention has been to provide a reference for buyers, other collectors and researchers. Rather than the typical catalog which is created and published, ours is an evolving document. I am adding items every few weeks and when an item sells it remains in the catalog along with the price realized. I am also including editorial material in much the way that this article and this site do.

One of the editorial tools in the catalog is a cross reference of Eglit numbers with Kennel catalog numbers. Buyers can instantly find an item in which they are interested by Eglit number. After the collection is sold, researchers can do the same. The catalog is arranged by item category and number. Tickets and other paper, for example, begin on page 5 and with catalog number K1001. Medals begin on page 34 with number K2000. Finding an item is easy by design.

I have discussed the process but not the specifics of historical value that lies within the catalog pages, due in great part to how John Kennel approached his collection. He was not unique among collectors, but he was near the very top, to be sure.

Discussing historical value and interest varies in general by the type of material. While there is much to be gleaned from tickets, obviously advertising, guides, brochures and other paper have more to offer. Having spent four decades studying the Exposition, much of that time specifically researching with an end goal of writing two books, I have found remarkable tidbits of information via tickets that I never would have found otherwise.

A major component of my history of The Midway Plaisance was detail–often minute–about the concessions and villages on The Midway. Tickets provided otherwise unknown information for example about soft drink concessions. It was excruciatingly frustrating to find financial data on concessions but not where they were located or what a drink cost, for example. One sentence on a ticket noted “right across from the bright blue dome” and suddenly I had a location for a concession that went out of business and vanished without leaving a trail of photographs or other information. Few museum professionals think to look for historical information in souvenirs or tickets or medals. The minority who do so realize their collections hold more secrets than they would have guessed.

For collectors, Eglit provides basic information about medals, such as the designer, engraver and perhaps the meaning of allegorical designs. I would venture to say that the majority of museum professionals with Columbian Expo collections do not have a copy of Eglit and have never heard of it.

As a collector as well as a historian and author, I often seek out the minutiae that earns one that “nerd” moniker. I thrive on those tiny bits of information. Kept in perspective, they can provide both valuable and interesting additions to an article or a book. Another example of value via souvenirs/medals was the Italian medal designed by Pagliaghi. While working on the Midway book I tripped over his name. A seller in Old Vienna was one of only two places fairgoers could purchase a Paghliaghi medal. The other was in the complete opposite (southeast) corner of the grounds at La Rabida, a reproduction of the convent where Columbus spent his last days. That information was interesting to a collector but not of great value in the book. But the fact that someone was selling medals in Old Vienna was intriguing. This turned out to be the key to unlocking very interesting information about Old Vienna and other concessions on The Midway. It seems that many of those who were granted concession licenses subleased a bit of space to vendors with absolutely nothing in common with their host. Old Vienna had a veritable mini mall where vendors sold souvenir pencils, soap–and medals. Now THAT was very interesting in assembling a history of The Midway and its concessions.

Souvenirs often have many stories to tell whether they’re at Disneyland or the World’s Columbian Exposition. And the work done by collectors, historians and curators all intersect at many points, just how many depending on the circumstance.

My hope in spending much of 2019 researching, describing and selling the John Kennel Collection is that the developing catalog will become an invaluable resource for collectors and just possibly for museums as well.

I will continue to share information about the collection here and I absolutely would be pleased to provide today’s version of that evolving catalog for the asking. Included in the catalog are two very valuable references–the Eglit number cross referenced to collection medals and the new rarity scale we developed specifically for Columbian tickets. Collectors had long used one or more of the well-known numismatic rarity scales, but that was a case of bending the existing scale to another use. After pondering this issue for a very long time, working on the Kennel Collection seemed to fuel my creativity and I developed the new scale specifically for tickets. Both are including in the catalog, but we may include them here simply to ensure more people see the data. Finally, in the near future we will provide an update to the Day of Sale tickets which we have researched and compiled sinc the very early 2000s.Kennel 2646-4.JPGThis previously unknown medal from the Kennel Collection is both beautiful and meaningful. It is an unissued example of the medal produced by the German government. It was presented to each of the Columbian Commissioners from Germany. Just finding such a medal provides many questions and also avenues for answers. Just how many Commissioners were there at the fair? There were Exposition Commissioners and a slew of those from every participating U.S. State and foreign countries. Finding a piece engraved to an individual–which Kennel had for an Expo Director–gives you information as a starting point for further research. I have not counted them, but Kennel probably has more than 20 previously unknown/uncatalogued medals, as well as another 10-12 unique test strikes or proofs.

As always, if you have questions or comments, please let me know.

 

 

 

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