WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN TO YOUR BUTTONS SOME DAY?
By Jocelyn Howells
Is that too shocking a question to ask? If you think so, then just maybe you're needing a little shock.
Why? If you have not done any serious thinking about what should happen to your buttons when you are no longer able to keep
them for whatever reason, then maybe this article will open your eyes. This question has been weighing heavily on my mind
because of some of the button collections I've been offered in the past year or so. With one notable exception, these were
more like accumulations rather than collections, because to me the word "collection" implies that the items were curated in
some special manner, well studied, preserved and presented. "Accumulation" means just about anything else, from the worst
case scenario of 95% rotten degraded condition, to the otherwise best situation of general good condition but very few mounted
I bet you've heard this phrase before -- that we don't own our buttons (although they may "own"
us - haha), but that we are merely stewards of them for the time they are in our possession -- that they belong to the
future. I strongly believe that it is our responsibility as stewards of the buttons in our possession to do our best to
learn what we have, properly mount them for compatibility of materials for future conservation -- AND to decide what should
happen with them after we are gone. I have been made particularly aware of this last point because of some of the collections
that I've acquired recently. Let me tell you about a few of them.
1) One collection was in storage, first because of a step-parent custody battle and then because of
forgetfulness, for over 25 years before it came to light. The granddaughter who finally ended up with the buttons got in touch
with me and allowed me to select the buttons that were usable. The rest she kept with the thought she might try to clean them
up and make "pictures" or other craft work with them. There were many that had to be thrown away, sad to say, because of all
those years of improper storage and neglect.
2) Another collection was left to a mentally ill daughter, who pulled all the buttons from the cards,
put them through the dishwasher, and then re-sorted them according to color, as far as she got before she passed on. That
accumulation ended up with a granddaughter, who kept them for a year or so -- in her cigarette smoke-filled mobile home. I
could not believe how they reeked of cigarette smoke. There were some good, salvageable buttons, but the majority went to
pokes or the trash.
3) The most tragic situation involved a collection that had been inherited by two sisters and stored
in their garage since their mother's death in 1969. They recalled their mother saying before she passed on that the collection
was worth $10,000, so when they called me in 2001, they thought it should be worth "at least
$15,000". After seeing the "collection" I knew that there was no way that it could have been worth $10,000 in 1969 -- it just
didn't have that kind of buttons -- plus it was just full of make-ups. Secondly, imagine my shock and dismay to discover the
condition was so bad that even the very cards the buttons were mounted on fell apart in my hands. There was very little to
be salvaged, and that would have required a great deal of time and work to do so.
It made me sad to have to tell the ladies that their inheritance -- that they were counting on to sustain
them in their last few years -- was worth just a tiny fraction of what they had dreamed and that I would not be able to buy their collection.
The worst part of it was that they didn't believe me. They said they had someone else who was interested, and I wished them
luck as I left with a heavy heart. They later called me to say they had found a buyer for $10,000, but if I wanted the collection
for that price, I could have it, as I was the first one to look at the collection. I told them that would not be possible
and encouraged them to sell to the other party. It was a few months later they called me again to say "that other person's
loan had not gone through", and again offered me the collection. At that time I recommended they contact a fellow club member
who had more time available than I did, who might be able to do something with the collection, considering the salvage operation
it represented. They contacted that person, who spent a full day reviewing the collection, after which she was able to offer
them $800 -- a very fair offer in my opinion. But they were highly incensed, thinking this person was trying to take advantage
of them and indignantly said they would rather give them away to a museum than sell them for such a low price. To make a long
story shorter, the collection was eventually donated to a thrift shop.
4) Another collection I acquired had been stored in the unheated part of a little wood house for over
25 years after the death of the collector. Her nearly-100-year-old husband was moved to a care facility last year, and a trustee
(there were no children) had the job of cleaning out the house. About half the buttons were mounted on very large cards, but
many of them had disintegrated because of celluloid suicide, which also took out many neighboring buttons. The adverse storage
conditions over the long time period had taken its toll on this otherwise charming folksy collection of the 1950-60 period.
Another salvage operation.
5) Another collection belonged to the mother of the gentleman who inherited them. She passed on years
before, believe it was some 10-20 years. Since then, her collection was stored in the garage of her home, which was tied up
in an estate settlement. We spent three days sifting through stuff in her garage to find the buttons, which were primarily
stored in fruitcake and other tins. This garage was not heated, so you might imagine the condition of the tins. They actually
looked pretty good on the outside, but when you opened them up, the insides were in an advanced stage of rusting. The layer
of rust over the buttons inside was so heavy you couldn't tell what the buttons were. The heir had to take each can outside
and blow off as much rust dust as he could before we could even start to look at the buttons. I've never seen anything like
that before or since. Of course, such storage conditions had led to celluloid suicide and mass murder of many neighbors. We
threw away many large paper bags full of buttons damaged beyond salvation. This heir also had a vastly exaggerated sense of
the value of his inheritance, and it was very difficult to make a deal with him. I finally ended up overpaying, just so we
wouldn't come home empty-handed after 5 days away from home, and he kept what he considered to be the best, or no deal would
have been possible at all.
6) Another acquisition was a collection of a lady who passed on over forty years ago. Her granddaughter
inherited the collection, always thinking she would "do something" with the buttons, but never got around to it. Now she's
moving into a small retirement home and can no longer keep the buttons. They had not been touched in all those years, and
as you can imagine, there was considerable loss, thanks mostly to celluloid degradation. Most of the better buttons were sewn
onto pieces of fabric with no regard to type of button or what it was made of, or mounted on fabric with pipe cleaners --
both which absorb moisture from the air. The granddaughter had considerable sentimental value still associated with this collection,
and an impression they were worth far more than I was able to offer. Even so, and partly because, I offered them more than
I should have. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to salvage the worthwhile buttons.
Here's what I've learned from these recent experiences:
A. Tell your heirs a realistic value of your collection -- not a figure inflated by pride or
sentiment. It should be a figure that will help them get a fair price if they should
decide to sell the buttons.
B. Instruct your heirs on proper storage conditions:
1. Moderate temperature and humidity maintained, with no extremes
and no unheated garages, etc.
2. Good air circulation around the collection
3. Nothing closed up in bags or tins -- even wood and glass frames are
not recommended for long-term storage because of lack of air circulation
4. Collection should be reviewed for degradation and aired out at least once
a year if not twice.
C. If heir is unwilling or unable to properly store your collection, reconsider who will inherit.
D. Mount your buttons with compatible materials together, and keep the celluloids separate.
I cannot stress how important it is to not place celluloid buttons with other materials for long-term storage. Sure, it's
okay for doing a competitive tray or other short-term purposes. But even then, do not enclose these buttons in airtight trays
or sleeves -- celluloid, above all materials, needs good air circulation. The problem is not with all celluloids, either,
but if you don't know which ones might be future troublemakers, then you should not card any celluloids with other materials.
I can tell you, though, that the Victorian-era sheet celluloid types are still standing the test of time just fine. It is
the later ones, primarily of the 1930-40s, which are thicker, and often transparent yellow or opaque cream color, that seem
to be the worst culprits. But others can degrade too under improper storage conditions, so why test fate?
E. Label as much as you can. Make notes on the backs of your mounting cards next to individual
buttons of information that will add to the value of your collection, such as:
1. what you paid and where you acquired the button if notable
2. specific information you learned about the button in competition or otherwise,
including sources of authority. My Grandma's collection included notes such as "According to Johnny Sprong," "Judy Mullins
says", or "Vivien Ertell judged this button in 1967 to be modern."
3. material or other pertinent classification information
Maybe these notes will help encourage your heirs to get interested in collecting and carry on your
hobby tradition in future generations of your family. That's what happened with me. I'm here now, writing this article, because
of the way my Grandmother's collection was presented, fully classified, annotated, priced, etc. It made her collection seem
like a part of her and not just a bunch of buttons, and started me on the fast path to becoming a serious button collector.
F. Try not to leave your buttons to disinterested parties, hoping they'll catch button fever
later on. Chances are they won't, but you can increase those chances by following A, B, C, and D above.
G. Give serious consideration before leaving your buttons to a museum. Very few museums are equipped
for or interested in curating a button collection. Buttons are not easy to display in a secure and healthy environment without
special provisions being made. Many times they end up in storage in a basement or other unfriendly atmosphere, and eventually
get sold off, if not dumped. The dream of the donor that their buttons be on display is usually idealistic and unrealistic.
It costs money to provide space and expertise for these specialized exhibits, and museums are notoriously short of funds.
An exception would be if a button club or other knowledgeable person(s) were available to assist with curating, cleaning,
mounting, identifying, labeling, etc. Ideally such assistance would be arranged in advance of and made contingent to the museum
accepting a button collection.
H. In my opinion, the best thing that can happen to our buttons when we can no long play and work with
them is to ensure that they pass into the hands of other dedicated button collectors. Then they could be available for supplementing
the collections of multiple collectors, stimulating their research, knowledge and joy in the hobby, thus ensuring the future
continuation of our hobby. In order for buttons to be collected, they must be readily available, in decent condition and at
affordable prices. This can be accomplished by making sure that your buttons get into the hands of a trustworthy and knowledgeable
collector or dealer who will see that your buttons are made available to other collectors, ideally those in your own club
or state society first.
I. In the event that your heir should decide to sell your buttons, you might pass along these tips:
1. The most value can be realized by selling the buttons directly to collectors,
button by button. Second to that would be selling them to collectors card by card, but then you have to start discounting
from the individual button values in order to find buyers, because collectors generally don't want to pay much for buttons
they don't need or want. The main drawback to this method is that some buttons will not sell, and the length of time necessary
to dispose of the collection could be greatly extended. Another problem with this method is having access to enough collectors
to find buyers for all the buttons.
2. Selling the entire collection in its entirety, with not a single good button sold off separately,
is usually the best way to go in the long run. While it may be harder to find a buyer (collector or dealer) with sufficient
funds, if you do, then you have realized a value about the same as what you would if you sold some of the collection button
by button, then others card by card discounted, and others not at all. And it would be done much quicker.
3. In either method above, the heir should set the prices, either from information
you have included with the collection, or by paying an appraiser to do so. It's also possible to take offers, but maybe then
the heir would be unsure if the offers were in the right ballpark.
4. Another option is to consign the entire collection to an auction, which
comes with its own pros and cons, such as a guarantee of honesty in accountability when turning over a large collection of
small items like buttons, length of time required to receive proceeds from an auction, and the size of commission that may
be charged by the auctioneer. One tactic sometimes used by some auction houses is, after receiving the collection to sell,
they review it and make a low-ball offer to outright buy it, thus getting money to the seller sooner than later. A
seller should only go this route if desperate for a quick turn-around and is willing to settle for much less than if they
waited. However, we all have heard of auction fever and the ridiculous prices people sometimes pay while under the influence
thereof, which could mean a better bottom line for the heir in the long run - so all factors have to be considered.
I hope this article has stimulated, rather than shocked, you into serious thinking about the
future destination of your button collection. It's never too early -- or too late -- to start your own program of button stewardship
and control the destiny of something that has meant so much in your life.
(c) Jocelyn Howells 2003- All rights reserved.