What pitfalls to beware of in disposing of a large music collection?
July 2, 2014 7:39 AM   Subscribe

My wife has inherited a sizable collection of records and CDs. What pitfalls do we have to watch out for when deciding how to dispose of these items? Details inside...

My wife's brother passed away unexpectedly a few months ago. He was a serious scholar of music, especially rhythm & blues and jazz. He had amassed a huge collection of vinyl LPs and CDs, and there are also a couple of file cabinets full of his research notes.

His will does not specify precisely how these items are to be disposed of after his death. We have been contacted by two major academic institutions, both of whom are interested in different parts of his collection. We do need to get all this out of the house ASAP, so that the house can be prepared for sale and put on the market.

Institution A has expressed an interest in the bulk of the collection, and has offered help in moving it and storing it until it can be properly catalogued. We would like to ensure that Institution B also gets a fair crack at the parts of the collection that it would like to have. We have no reason to believe, at least at present, that these two institutions would not cooperate.

We would be very interested in hearing from anyone who has had a similar experience, and who may have some knowledge of essential steps to take and pitfalls to be wary of.
posted by zainsubani to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You will want to have the collection appraised as a unit, ASAP. This will enable the estate, or whomever ends up 'owning' the collection prior to its donation in whole or in part, to realize any potential tax savings. It's possible that the Institutions you are talking to will have people who can do this, but they'll probably need to do it independently of your donation. I don't think you can rely on the thank you letter from either Institution saying "thanks for the $10,000 donation of records"...!
posted by scolbath at 7:54 AM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Generally, splitting up a collection like this is not a good idea if it can be prevented. It can make things difficult for researchers and difficult for the records managers/archivists to maintain provenance if a collection is split. It is possible that Institution A will not want just part of the collection if Institution B has the other half - not because of ill will between the institutions, but because cooperation between archives is difficult. Archives are in the business of preserving materials and access to those materials over time, and if a collection is split that poses unique challenges to both institutions. Here is a good academic article [PDF] about why cooperative collections are a good idea in theory but are difficult in practice.

The first thing I would look into is the archival facilities at both institutions. Ask to have a tour of the archives. What type of storage do they use? How do they preserve items? Do they have a history of storing multimedia collections like yours? What type of access to they provide to users? What does their donor agreement document look like?

I think that the most important thing for me as a potential donor would be that they already have facilities designed for multimedia collections such as yours. If they do not have experience with multimedia collections, I would look elsewhere.

And, yes, have the collection appraised.
posted by sockermom at 8:05 AM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a question for the executor of the will and their lawyer.

I'm guessing you are the executor. Contact the lawyer for the estate to find out what your duties are towards the collection. You may not be free to take into account otherwise important concerns regarding collection integrity and the like.

Contact your lawyer immediately. The collection must have some value if multiple institutions are interested in it.

I am not your lawyer. This is not legal advice, but advice to contact a legal professional in your area regarding obtaining legal advice for the problem expressed here.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:16 AM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Generally, splitting up a collection like this is not a good idea if it can be prevented

This isn't really true. Or, at least, we would need to know a lot more about your brother in law and the nature of the collection before we could decide that question. If your brother in law was not just a "serious scholar" but also a famous and influential scholar, there is value in keeping the collection together because some future scholar might be interested in studying this specific grouping of works as the "zainsubani's brother-in-law collection." It is far, far more likely, though, that the scholarly value of the collection to any institution likes solely in the parts of it that are relevant to their archive (i.e., works they don't have, or works that are sufficiently rare that multiple copies are intrinsically valuable). Typically any institution will take a collection like this, pick out from it the bits they want and then either sell, return or dispose of the remainder (and that will depend, in part, upon your wishes).

One thing you need to be clear about from the outset is A) how you feel about that and B) what instructions you want to give about the remainder of the collection once institutions A and B have picked over it (you may end up surprised at just how much they leave behind). This can be (and I've seen this in a number of cases with people whose parents left significant book collections behind) a wrenching experience. You feel that a great part of the identity of the deceased is bound up in the collection, but you really can't afford to give it houseroom yourself. It's not uncommon for people to sink a lot of money into paying for storage and so on before finally realizing that they're "preserving" the remnants of a collection that means nothing, now, to any living person.

My own vote, based on what you've said here, would be to accept institution A's generous offer to help with moving and cataloging the collection, to let them, in return, keep any parts of it they find valuable, to instruct them to offer the remainder to institution B and then to dispose of the rest of the pieces as they see fit (after they provide you with a list--from the catalog they've made--of all the remaining items so that you can select any that either personally interest you or which would be valuable as keepsakes to remember the brother-in-law by).
posted by yoink at 9:27 AM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm in the process of liquidating my own jazz collection. I understand you aren't looking for directed advice, just a general heads-up about pitfalls. From that perspective, Ironmouth's advice is right. You said your wife "has inherited" this collection, but then you also wrote, "His will does not specify precisely how these items are to be disposed of after his death." Maybe you're just being casual with language and you already know what I'm about to say, but there's a strongly implied conflict between those two phrasings. It's a red flag. If you're not aware of what I mean, that's a major pitfall and you should get it straightened out ASAP. As Ironmouth says, talk to your lawyer. (I am not your lawyer, nor do I practice estate law.)

I spent a long time as a collector and explored several different ways of getting rid of my collection. (For what it's worth, my motivation was to prevent exactly the situation you're in.) I didn't have universities soliciting my collection, so it's a slightly different circumstance, but I did shop around various options including donation. For me, the biggest concern was minimizing my own investment of time. I considered value, profit, and expense for sure, but my priority was, "If I'm going to do this, I want it done quickly." Letting someone else come into my library, cherry-pick, and then cut me a check sounds quick and easy, but it would create more hassle in trying to liquidate the remainder. I enjoyed collecting. Selling is a different activity. I don't enjoy it, so I wanted it done.

That may or may not apply to your circumstance; and as Ironmouth says, it may not be a permissible priority. Talk to your lawyer. But from my personal experience, being able to negotiate with a single recipient to take the entire collection—or compelling two recipients to cooperate—is an extremely worthy goal. If I'd had, say, both Berklee's and Juilliard's libraries interested in my collection, I would have accepted less money in exchange for getting it done with minimum hassle. If my collection included titles they weren't interested in having in their libraries, I would have pressed hard to make that their problem rather than leaving the orphans with me.

If you have specific questions, ask away. Good luck. My condolences on your family's loss.
posted by cribcage at 10:21 AM on July 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

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