In the Age of Ephemera
- by Bruce E. McKinney
Books have long been the mainstay in the ‘printed’ category while other printed forms have periodically captured the headlines and imaginations of collectors and collecting institutions. But we seem to be entering into a profound stage of change that is seeing the very definition of printed collectibles evolve in face of emerging visibility by subject, period and category.
This is of course nothing new. Schools of painting come and go as do random subjects become an era’s bright and shiny object. Furniture that bespeaks style as do categories of objects such as flags, models, weapons, and related objects also add immeasurably to collections. Hence a famous printers’ press is hardly a giant step once a collector’s imagination has broken through the bounds that frame traditional collecting possibilities.
Epic collecting was once the sole preserve of wildly wealthy collectors, museums and highly significant libraries that had knowledge, gumption and resources. These days there is more money around and the internet rewards intense research revealing collecting focuses we never dreamed were possible. Just a decade ago collecting seemed to fall into well-defined categories and now we seem to be living through the emergence of tens of thousands of seemingly random dots that become personal constellations. It is a remarkable moment in the history of collecting as this extraordinary avocation is being restructured by information and personal interest rather than by dealer inventories that have structured their holdings into traditional collecting categories. Voila, presto, there are a thousand ways to effectively collect.
While virtually all collecting disciplines are affected they are not equally altered. Books have been suffering disproportionately because the great listing sites make it transparent how many copies are available when collectors are often looking for rare material. Manuscripts, by comparison, are unique and often have few comparable options. Printed maps tend to have multiple copies as do engravings. And then there is ephemera and what is it?
A large portion of collectible printing was intended to survive. However, ephemera is/was essentially ‘created for the moment’ and is/was not expected to survive. Few precautions hence were taken to record, define and explain such items although through the prism of time such objects are often intensely interesting. Books, by comparison, have documented history that is built transaction by transaction when they pass though auction rooms. Ephemera has a much slimmer history, in part because identification is often difficult when neither date nor place are provided when its location was self-evident. Here are a few examples; announcements that ships, boats or barges are to set sail. Posters for entertainments such as Romeo and Juliet at 8:00pm often suggest a poster was provided on the day at the place for the event. Menus too don’t necessarily tell a complete story, just what’s for dinner, not necessarily the day and year, not even for sure the place. Photographs often tell us only what we can piece together from what we can see. So such items only tell a fragmentary account.
Taken together however such material often can tell us a great deal about the past.
This in a small way begins to explain the power of ephemera and why such material is increasingly finding its way into auctions. It’s often inexpensive, fragmentary and incompletely described. Hence, the collector or institution has to have an educated perspective to guess at what or how material fits in.
All this said, the future for ephemera is robust. We expect 30% of all auction lots will focus on or include such material over the next 10 years.