by Gary Rosenberg
I have noticed in recent years
an increasing perception among conchologists that museums do
not want their collections. Accompanying this is an increasing
reluctance to donate collections to museums, because shells
will be "locked away" where no one can see them. To
illustrate sometimes contrasting perceptions and expectations
of donors and recipients, I discuss here the terms under which
my department accepts collections, and point out a few legal
issues. Yes, we still accept, and even recruit, donations of
Terms and conditions
1. We cannot agree to keep
all the material in a collection; some might be given or traded
to other institutions, used for teaching by other departments
within the museum, or sold in a public sale, such as an auction.
(Accredited museums in the United States are not allowed to
sell material privately.) We might keep anywhere from 5% to
100% of a collection. Before accepting donations, I inform donors
how much of their collections we are likely to incorporate into
our permanent research collection. If we do not keep material,
it is usually because of poor locality data, or because the
material duplicates our holdings.
2. We cannot keep an individual's
collection together. If we had twenty separate collections,
finding all the specimens of a particular species would be difficult.
Therefore, anything that goes into the research collection is
integrated in systematic order with the rest of the collection.
The label with each lot states who donated the material. Also,
everything catalogued into our collection since 1976 is computerized,
so it is easy to generate a list of material donated by a particular
person. This data is also available on Internet. For example,
to see what Marvin Hyett or C. L. Richardson donated to us,
search by last name at <gopher://erato.acnatsci.org:70/11/.mala>(link
3. We cannot agree to put something
on display in perpetuity. We have fourteen million specimens,
so only the smallest fraction will ever be on display. The specimens
are not "locked away," however. We give behindthescenes
tours by appointment and during the annual Philadelphia Shell
Show, which is held at the museum. Scientists from all over
the world visit the collection and request material on loan.
Amateurs engaged in taxonomic research are also allowed to use
our collection and library. The availability of collection data
on Internet potentially makes our specimens available much more
widely than they would be in a private collection. Recently
acquired digital imaging equipment allows us to distribute images
of specimens to researchers on request via Internet.
4. The donor must have acquired
all donated specimens legally. This will cause increasing problems
in the future, because laws for collecting permits in various
countries are becoming stricter and more complex. Institutions
will have to stop accepting collections if donors are unable
to establish clear title to the specimens. How many of you have
specimens from the Galapagos in your collections? If they were
collected after around 1980, they were probably acquired illegally.
If they were collected before 1980, can you prove it?
do you at least have a label that looks twenty years old? If
you have a specimen of an endangered species in your collection,
can you prove that you got it before the species went on the
endangered species list? Keep all the documentation (original
labels, correspondence, invoices, collecting permits) for specimens
in your collection; it will be valuable. Collectors who plan
to donate their collections in thirty years should establish
a relationship with an institution now. The staff there can
advise on getting collecting and import permits.
5. Financial support is appreciated.
Our cost for housing specimens is about $0.20 per lot per year.
This is just the cost of keeping the roof on the building, heating,
air conditioning, sweeping the floor, etc. I calculate this
as follows: we have about 460,000 lots, and the department takes
up 11,000 square feet. Our overhead cost is $8.40/sq. ft, averaged
over the whole museum. Library and offices occupy some of our
space, but literature and people are necessary to maintain the
collection, so considering all department space as supporting
the collection is reasonable: $8.40/sq. ft/year x (11000 sq.
ft./460000 lots) = $0.2009/lot/year. To "endow" a
lot would cost $4.00. The U.S. stock market returns 10% in the
long run (and nonprofit institutions don't pay tax), so
$4.00 yields $0.40/year, half of which pays the annual cost
of overhead for the specimen, and half of which is reinvested
so that the endowment keeps up with inflation.
In addition to the annual maintenance
cost, there is an initial cost to catalogue a specimen, which
ranges from $2 to $5 per lot, depending on how much curation
a collection needs. This is the cost to sort the donated material,
identify it (or confirm the identification), rehouse it in standard
vials and boxes, computerize it, print acidfree labels,
and distribute it to the proper place in the collection. Our
ultimate total cost per lot is $6 to $9: $2 to $5 per lot for
curation plus $4/lot to house it forever. Thus incorporating
a collection of 10,000 lots costs us $60,000 to $90,000. That
is why museums think twice about accepting donations, and why
they often ask for financial support for curation. Preserving
scientifically important collections is our mission, but with
limited funds and space, we have to be careful what we preserve.
What do Museums want?
have different priorities. Some museums do not have space or
funds to add material even if it is of scientific value. Others
specialize in the fauna of a particular geographic area. The
least scientifically valuable collection to us is a synoptic
worldwide collection of purchased shells, since it will largely
duplicate material that we have, generally has only one or two
specimens per lot, and often has imprecise locality data. Such
a collection might be very valuable to an institution that is
trying to build a comparative shell collection (for example
the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York).
We accept such collections for the same reason they
often contain species new to our collection. One man who donated
his collection a number of years ago treated shells essentially
like postage stamps. If he saw on a list a name that he didn't
have in his collection, he bought it. He didn't know how to
identify shells, so this procedure netted a lot of synonyms.
In his collection of some 4,000 total, he also had 200 species
that were new to our collection!
More scientifically valuable
is a taxonomically specialized collection. The specialist pursues
hardtoget species, and develops series illustrating
variation within species across their geographic ranges. Such
collections often are worth incorporating into our research
collection in their entirety, and can instantly give us good
coverage of most of the species in a particular family. An example
is Hal Lewis's collection of Ranellidae, which contained almost
all known species in the family when he donated some twenty
years ago. The collection also documented enormous range of
variation. Last year I found that for twenty percent of its
species it contained specimens larger than the currently listed
Perhaps even more valuable is
a selfcollected collection focusing in depth on a particular
geographical area. Such a collector learns the habitats of the
animals, tracks them down in their lairs, and documents what
they eat for breakfast. Such a collection is most likely to
contain random samples that document range of variation in natural
populations of a species. All too often specimens are sorted,
culled, and traded - the big purple ones end up in a collection
in Japan, the small pink ones end up in the United States, and
dumpy gray ones go in the rubbish heap. The taxonomically specialized
collector eventually pieces together the range of variation
for each species, whereas the selfcollector is at the source
and sees the species in action. An example is the Jack Worsfold
collection of mollusks from Grand Bahama Island, one of the
few collections that we have ever purchased. Worsfold collected
around a thousand species on Grand Bahama Island alone, documenting
date, depth, and habitat with each lot. The collection contained
around 8,000 lots and untold thousands of specimens, many of
them micromollusks and undoubtedly many undescribed species.
Although we prefer the precise,
reliable locality data associated with selfcollected material,
the importance of locality data varies with the species. If
we do not have any specimens of a species, we will catalogue
a specimen without any locality data whatsoever. We are not
fussy about data if we have fewer than ten specimens of a species.
If we have several hundred specimens of a species, we might
insist on having detailed ecological information for additional
specimens, and we might prefer large lots to individual specimens.
Fifty specimens from fifty sites occupy far more room than fifty
specimens from one site, and take far more time and materials
to catalogue. Our smallest box size is 1 x 3 inches, so for
many species, ten or even one hundred specimens take up no more
room than one specimen.
What do collectors want?
Collectors often want their
collections to be on display. Unfortunately, this is unlikely
to happen. The research collection staff seldom controls exhibit
space in museums. Also, most natural history museums have far
more objects than they can ever display. If display is truly
important to you, shop around for a smaller institution that
might want a special attraction.
Collectors want their collections
to be available for future generations. To ensure availability
of your collection, look for an institution that has a history
of research in malacology, and currently active staff. Most
university collections end up orphaned because of changing research
emphasis. Our collection includes the collections of the University
of Pennsylvania, Alfred University, and Syracuse University,
and part of the Princeton University collection. If you plan
to donate your collection, even far in the future, talk to the
institution now to make sure you have a mutual understanding.
Collectors want a tax break.
The best part about donating a collection is that it can bring
a better financial return than selling it, especially if you
are in a higher tax bracket. The worst part about donating a
collection is arranging for an appraisal. The Internal Revenue
Service (IRS) considers it a conflict of interest for the recipient
of the donation to appraise it, and even frowns upon an institution
recommending a particular appraiser. At best, the institution
can provide a list of qualified people. An appraiser can be
anyone with experience in identifying and pricing shells. Generally
this means a shell dealer, but some museum curators are also
If the IRS challenges your appraisal,
it will want to know the qualifications of the appraiser: for
example, how long he has been in business, and appraisal method
used. Method of appraisal might be item by item, or a standard
average value for most lots, with rarities appraised individually.
Method of appraisal also includes a statement of references
used, such as Tom Rice's compilation of dealer prices. If a
lot has more than a certain (unspecified) number of specimens,
the IRS might expect appraisal at wholesale instead of retail
value. Appraisal for a percentage of a collection's value is
not acceptable, as it creates a conflict of interest. Expect
to pay for an appraiser's travel, and an hourly or daily rate.
One more possibility is pending
- if COA succeeds in getting its tax status changed, you
will be able to donate your collection to COA, watch the feeding
frenzy at the auction, and get that tax break, all for the benefit
of educational grants, or some other conchological purpose that
you might designate.
Mollusks, Academy of Natural Sciences, 1900 Benjamin Franklin
Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19103-1195