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Antiques dealer pockets thousands from West Overton Museum buys

| Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012

With the bang of an auctioneer's gavel, an early 1800s secretary with an inlaid image of an American eagle owned for decades by West Overton Museums near Scottdale was sold at a private auction for $8,750.

But most of the profit went to a local antiques dealer, who paid the museum $500 for the Federal mahogany secretary a few months earlier, according to Executive Director Kelly Linn.

The secretary is one of dozens of artifacts and antiques now in the hands of private collectors after the museum sold them during the summer to Victor Baker, owner of Tomahawk Coins & Antiques, who rents space in the museum complex centered around industrialist Henry Clay Frick's family home.

The sale to Baker and two tag sales at the site netted $30,282, Linn said. Baker sold many of the items he bought at public auctions held Oct. 17 and Nov. 26.

"Should I have sold (the desk)• Probably not," Linn said.

As rumors swirled in the community that she was going to be fired because of the private sale, Linn said, she tried to buy back the secretary. But Baker refused to sell it to her.

The sale raised accusations from former directors and board members that the items were priced below market value and the ethical issue of how a museum should sell items from its collection, a process known as "deaccessioning."

"I've lost sleep over this," said former director John Mickinak, an antiques dealer who has done free appraisals for West Overton. "I'm sick in the stomach over this."

Linn said she sold the items because they don't fit into the museum's new mission. Established as an agrarian museum, West Overton will reopen next year after a $55,000 renovation project to refocus on the village's rye whiskey distillery.

Linn said the museum had become a "dumping ground" for items people donated thinking they were valuable because they were old. She said "99 percent of the items are not museum quality," including plastic dishes, salt and pepper shakers, horseshoes, and broken farm tools and chairs.

"I would not describe them as valuable antiques. They were accumulating dust and not telling a story," Linn said.

But a newspaper advertisement for the Oct. 17 auction of "quality antiques" from the museum lists a rare 1898 Columbia chainless bicycle, black powder long rifles, a Civil War wooden drum, swords, spinning wheels, railroad lanterns, coal mining artifacts, an inlaid oriental cabinet, and gold and silver coins and jewelry. Baker advertised more than 20 crocks from the 1800s, most made in Greensboro, Greene County, or New Geneva, Fayette County, both highly valued by collectors.

Linn said she had approval for the sale from museum directors and the Helen Clay Frick Foundation in Pittsburgh, which provides financial support.

"The board was fully aware (of the sale)," she said.

Childs Burden, a great-nephew of Helen Clay Frick who serves on the foundation's board, said he supports Linn's efforts to redirect the floundering museum's focus.

"They've got a right to sell what they want, but I thought the items were auctioned," Burden said, noting he would not have approved of the private sale.

"I'm dismayed if it's true," he said. "I'm shocked by that and saddened by that."

'The right way'

Rusty Baker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Museum and Historical Organizations in Harrisburg, said the sale of museum inventory to private collectors is controversial.

"This is a recurring theme in the museum industry," he said. "It's happening a lot all over the country. It's a very slippery area, very complex."

Museums should develop a collections policy before selling artifacts, Baker said.

Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Association of Museums in Washington, said "deaccessioning itself is not taboo," but museums should follow legal and ethical rules when selling items.

"We're not a regulatory agency," Blanton said, "but most every museum, whether accredited or not, should try to abide by a code of ethics that best suits their discipline."

Blanton said The Carnegie in Pittsburgh sold 185 items from its decorative arts collection in 2009 because the items didn't fit the museum's mission.

"But they did it the right way" by having the collection reviewed by a committee and appraised before any sale, he said.

'Fragile' state

West Overton Museums operates on $80,000 a year from the Frick foundation and from public donations. It receives no state funds.

Burden said the foundation's support is intended to help the museum become self-sufficient, but financial struggles and the high turnover of executive directors and board members have stymied independence.

Former director Chris Kline described the museum as "fragile ... because it's a small historical site, located in Scottdale, off the beaten path."

Linn, the fifth director in a decade, said the changes in leadership have hindered the museum.

"There's been no continuity here. Now, everybody's coming out of the woodwork with questions," she said. "There's a little bit of jealousy that something good is happening here. Everybody's out to find something wrong."

The museum is "in better fiscal condition now than we've ever been," director Rob Ferguson said.

West Overton's board authorized Linn to set the prices on the items Baker bought, said Ferguson and fellow director Brian Corcoran.

Linn said the prices she set "didn't warrant" a review by the board. Linn was curator of the Fort Pitt Block House at Point State Park in Pittsburgh for six years and has a master's degree in cultural resource management from California University of Pennsylvania.

The board allowed Victor Baker to buy the items because he rents a building at the site and "he has a stake in the revitalization project," Linn said.

Baker declined to comment.

"It's business," he said. "I don't discuss business."

'Pot of gold' gone

Former board members maintain the museum could have made more money by selling them at auction.

"If we had taken it to auction, we could have realized a greater price," Linn conceded, but the museum would have had to pay a 35 percent commission plus fees.

William Seaman, a Scottdale antiques dealer, said Linn sold "a pot of gold." Former director Mickinak, who attended Baker's Oct. 17 auction, said a Confluence crock sold for nearly $6,000.

Phil Schaltenbrand of Washington County, an expert on Southwestern Pennsylvania stoneware who has written three books on the subject, appraised West Overton's collection in the 1990s.

"They have some very nice pieces," he said. The pieces he appraised were worth $700 to $900 each at the time, he said, and the whole collection would have been worth "thousands and thousands of dollars."

Corcoran said the board wants to sell more inventory this year "to generate more cash flow" for the renovation project. Those items will be independently appraised, he said.

"(Linn) has some serious credentials. (But) I'm sure she's going to be a little more keen in future deaccessioning," Ferguson said.

Linn called the renovation "a huge undertaking."

"For this to go off without one misstep, you're living in dreamland," she said.

'Know what the junk is'

Former directors contend the items should have remained at the museum.

"The items represented an era of Southwestern Pennsylvania from 1850 to 1890," Robert Kendra said. "These items were indigenous to the area. It represents a very unique and large collection that's been there a long time."

Kline said the historical value of the artifacts goes "above and beyond any financial value."

"You shouldn't part ways until you understand what's there," he said. "Is there junk there• Yes, there is. Until you know what the junk is, you shouldn't let it go."

Susan Endersbe, West Overton's first full-time director, said Linn has diminished the public trust.

"When people donate things, there's a certain trust factor. She's destroying that trust.I'm sad that things are flying out of there. When things are gone, they're gone," she said.

Additional Information:

About the village

• West Overton Village is the birthplace of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, who spent the first 30 years of his life there.

• The village was founded in 1800 by Abraham Overholt, Frick's grandfather, when he moved there from Bucks County. Overholt began making rye whiskey under the name Old Overholt, which now is distilled by Jim Beam.

• Frick went into the coal and coke business when he established the H.C. Frick Coke Co. in Scottdale and became one of the largest coke producers in the country. He partnered with Andrew Carnegie and eventually led the Carnegie Steel Co.

• His daughter, Helen Clay Frick, later purchased West Overton as a memorial to her father. She died in 1984 in Pittsburgh at 96.

• The museum's initial mission was to interpret changes from an agrarian society to an industrial one.

• Today, the complex consists of the remaining 18 buildings. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Source: West Overton Village

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