One of America’s largest troves of political and campaign memorabilia is headed for the auction block, spurring protests from some who do not want to see it divided up and sold to private collectors.
The University of Hartford plans to hire an auction house and sell off more than 70,000 items, many of them donated by the late J. Doyle DeWitt, a former chairman of The Travelers Cos. who spent decades amassing letters from presidents, campaign posters, and pins and advertisements dating to the 18th century.
The artifacts include a pin worn by George Washington at his inauguration and torchlights used by a political group, The Wide Awakes, which marched at night in northern states during the 1860 campaign in support of Abraham Lincoln.
The university, which once served as home to the federally-funded Museum of American Political Life, said it offered the collection for sale to other schools, the state, the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. But no other institution has agreed to buy the entire collection.
“The university began the process of selling this memorabilia after determining that maintaining and exhibiting the collection as an academic resource on campus no longer matches the university’s best interests and needs, and that maintaining the collection is not the best use of university resources,” the school said in a statement.
One donor has threatened to sue to stop the auction.
Bruce Rubenstein, a Hartford attorney and collector of left-wing memorabilia, said he donated hundreds of artifacts in the early 1990s that became part of the collection, but only after getting assurances from the university they would never be sold. The items included early Communist Party material and pamphlets from the infamous 1886 Haymarket demonstration in Chicago that ended in a bombing.
“I intended the materials be put on public view, so people could come in and get an education experience from it,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be locked up for 10 years and then sold to plug some operational hole in the school’s budget.”
Hubert Santos, another attorney and collector, also has written to the U.S. attorney’s office in Connecticut, asking it to investigate. He believes the federal government prohibited the sale of the collection as a condition of funding the museum.
“This is a national treasure,” Santos said.
The school closed the museum in the summer of 2004 after determining it needed the space to expand its architecture program. An evaluation of school resources in 2012 included a recommendation to divest and sell the collection.
University officials said the collection, most of which was never put on display, was donated without restrictions and it has determined there is no legal impediment to the sale. The university said it has narrowed down the choice of auction houses to two.
The school said it has not yet determined the value of the collection or what it will do with the revenue generated from the sale. But Santos and Rubenstein said they were told the school was seeking $4.5 million.
“That’s a fire sale,” said Rubenstein, who said the items he donated were worth over $1 million at the time.
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