State museum will auction unneeded historic items

A 19th-century Conestoga wagon is the largest and likely the most valuable piece to be auctioned Saturday. The museum has six such wagons and does not know this one's history.
A 19th-century Conestoga wagon is the largest and likely the most valuable piece to be auctioned Saturday. The museum has six such wagons and does not know this one's history. (VINCE CASARD / Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission)
Posted: February 15, 2014

HARRISBURG - Sometimes you can, in fact, have too many Conestoga wagons.

The Pennsylvania State Museum on Saturday is auctioning a 19th-century Conestoga wagon - the moving van of the great westward migration - and about 1,000 more artifacts to free storage space and find new homes for items it can no longer afford to preserve.

The wagon, a style believed to be rooted in the early Pennsylvania German settlements in Lancaster County, is the largest object and likely most valuable among the cast-off wares of the state museum and 13 of its 26 affiliate museums.

"I have six Conestoga wagons," said Mary Jane Miller, the museum's head of collections management. "We don't know the history of this one, and we don't have the room."

Nor is there room for hundreds of objects, including several pieces of historic furniture, a pair of quilts from the Ephrata Cloister, butter molds from long-ago dairies, bobbins from textile mills, mining tools, pottery, jewelry, railroad history books, and a locomotive headlight.

There is an array of ephemera - 19th-century Philadelphia and Baltimore newspapers, stamps from Boys Town - and inexplicable objects in varying conditions: a helicopter part, tool handles, three nylon stockings.

Miller said that curators often have no idea how something winds up in a collection and that sometimes when a private collection is donated, the museum has to take everything - even bed pans.

The auction is part of the periodic collection-purging that goes on in the museum system, as curators determine which items are duplicates, or of unknown origin, or of marginal value and in such poor condition that, for museum purposes, they are not worth restoring.

The items that stay also must help tell the story of Pennsylvania, whether it be the history of the state's role in the Revolutionary War at Brandywine Battlefield in Chadds Ford, or coal mining in the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, or rural life in the Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster.

The five World War I-era Army Medical Corps metal lockers from 18th-century Pennsbury Manor, William Penn's reconstructed home in Morrisville, that are on the auction block clearly did not live up to that goal.

Miller said curators will try to place items in other museum or library collections to keep them on public view. If that fails, they turn to the auction house as a way to raise money to preserve aging artifacts they will keep.

Auction house owner David Cordier said it was impossible to estimate how much the auction would bring in, but he wagers that the Conestoga wagon and the 1870 corner cupboard will bring the highest bids.

Charles Fox, director of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, which chronicles the state's rich railroad history, says he expect train aficionados to vie for the out-of-print rail books. "This may be one of the few opportunities to acquire these books at a public sale," he said.

But Fox won't be rushing to fill up his storage room. He has to look toward collecting for future generations.

"That's the real challenge," he said. "Railroads are still alive and thriving, and that's a story we need to tell."

The auction begins at 9 a.m. Saturday at Cordier Auctions, 1500 Paxton St., Harrisburg. An auction preview will be held Friday from 2 to 6 p.m. For directions and information, including the catalog, visit or call 717-731-8662.

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