Historical ephemera... worth keeping?!
December 26, 2011 10:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm cleaning out my storage, and wanted to find out whether two objects are worth keeping / selling: A nautical insurance policy from Sept. 21, 1802 (front, back), and a B&W photograph, on a 14"x20" piece of Kodak paper, of Mt. Saint Helens erupting, photographer unknown (photo). More details inside.

The $9000 nautical insurance policy is for the ship "Triumph," sailing from Baltimore to some place called Laguira? Taken out by B.M. Mumford for the account of a Joseph Conkling. The master of the ship appears to be John Desham. The document is signed by Paschal N. Smith, President of Columbian Insurance Company, who is mentioned several times in "The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton". Smith was apparently a former captain-turned-merchant and insurance underwriter, who was a member of a committee appointed by the New York Chamber of Commerce to help plan the Montauk Point Lighthouse. During the Revolutionary War, he was an owner/part-owner of several Massachusetts privateers, at one point co-owning a ship with a Benedict Arnold.

The B&W photograph of Mt. Saint Helens erupting appears to have been taken on March 18, 1980, judging from this comparable shot, taken in roughly the same place.

Do any of you know a bit more about these items, how I might discover more, and whether either of them might be worth something to possible collectors of such items?
posted by markkraft to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Doing a bit more research on Paschal N. Smith. Seems he was on good terms with General Webb, a veteran and commander at Bunker Hill, Trenton, etc. Also the man who held the bible for George Washington, as he was sworn in to the first term in office.

Apparently, Smith was the son-in-law of Isaac Sears, one of the most important members of the Sons of Liberty, and a business partner with him during the Revolutionary War. Smith seems to have been the quiet business/financial partner behind a lot of Sears' privateering efforts during the war.
posted by markkraft at 11:34 PM on December 26, 2011

Best answer: Disclaimer: I am not an antiques dealer, rare books appraiser, etc., but I am an academic librarian from the PNW with a background in history.

I expect that these items would have value to collectors of historical, nautical, and Pacific Northwest ephemera, documents, and photographs. No way of knowing without talking to experts precisely how rare/valuable the St. Helens photo is, as the level of geological activity was known and many people were taking pictures in advance of and around the time of eruption. I've seen photos of St. Helens erupting in second-hand stores for under $100, if memory serves, price depending on framing & matting, and that was some time back. The nautical insurance policy could be worth something if anything of particular interest happened on the "Triumph," and it would be worth something on the basis of uniqueness alone if no other copies of the policy survive. I don't know if there's a market out there for ship insurance policies, but I suspect this is one of those classic "for the right buyer" sort of situations.

Note that, as with most other secondhand dealers, antiques/ephemera dealers would pay you a fraction of the market value of these items. How big a fraction depends on any number of things, but if I were looking to maximize profit on these items, I'd seek out opportunities to have these items listed in auctions focusing on the general subjects (photography; historical documents). If you're looking for a lark, these would be exactly the sorts of things one would take to something like "Antiques Roadshow" next time it's in your area.

If you don't want to go through the hassle of any of that, or if you want these items to have perhaps a greater chance of being seen widely or having an impact on scholarship, consider donating to a library or historical organization. For the insurance policy, I'd consider contacting either the Smithsonian or one of the historical orgs in Baltimore that focus on history, maritime or otherwise. For the photograph, you might try the Washington State Historical Society
posted by cupcakeninja at 4:15 AM on December 27, 2011

The Maryland Historical Society would likely love to have the insurance document. I assume you can take a tax write-off for the retail value of the document.
posted by COD at 5:19 AM on December 27, 2011

The St. Helen's photo I would be willing to buy from you, frame, and hang on my wall if the price is right. eBay?
posted by oceanjesse at 9:48 AM on December 27, 2011

That insurance document is definitely worth something to someone. Finding that someone is another matter. A person working in Marine Insurance, Maritime Law, Ocean shipping, etc. would love something like that hanging on their office wall.
posted by Carbolic at 11:39 AM on December 28, 2011

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