Donating Collections

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 shell collections.

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 (link is broken)
  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?

Different institutions 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 world record.

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 qualified.

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.

Department of Mollusks, Academy of Natural Sciences, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19103-1195