Monday, October 01, 2007


Even the old-time Blackfeet did a certain amount of hoarding. When they made a big buffalo kill, they’d dry all they could (combining both smoky fire and windy sun) by slicing it thin and hanging it on racks. Then they’d stuff it into bags and bury it someplace dry and well-disguised. If they were lucky, no animals would find it and it wouldn’t rot or mold. If they were even more lucky, they would find a cache left by another tribe.

But the real hoarding ethic didn’t begin until grain became the basis of cities with walls and granaries. Then the powerful could force the little people to do the work, feeding them a little bit so they could take the rest. It was organic gold. Pretty soon this commodity became exchangeable with other commodities and, behold, the futures market. Reality translated into symbolism almost before there were even coins. Or at least paper money.

Beyond the rich person or city came today’s invention of symbolic hoarding, based on book-keeping, “capital” that might or might not be “backed” by anything at all, but which could be manipulated by all sorts of symbolic stocks and bonds, taxes and interest. Huge institutions and whole vocations grew up around all this. And legends. “Ownership” as a concept now applied to land, to carbon credits, to mineral rights as opposed to crop rights, to rights of way and hunting rights. And among all these fantasy concepts, which exist only by social consent, one of the most pernicious has turned out to be the corporation, the pretense that an institution is a person, a corpus or body, with the same status as a human being. Except, in the end, who is there to throw in jail?

New topic: status. One’s standing in society. If you have high status, you get more and better food and other stuff. Much of what holds the pretense of corporation in place is status. CEO’s get lots of money and we are supposed to believe that they “earn” it, that they are entitled to it, though all they do is manipulate concepts far removed from reality. Boards are supposed to govern, but do they? Lately we’ve begun to smell rats in the granaries.

An institution is often a corporation and some institutions are devoted to hoarding not money but objects. I’m not talking about banks and stock exchanges now, not talking about business. I’m talking libraries, historical societies, museums, and the like.

When I was a little girl, our kitchen had a tall but shallow cupboard in the wall that had once housed a fold-down ironing board. But the ironing board was gone, the door of the cupboard was gone, and shelves had been installed. My mother kept her pitcher collection there. When we got our morning bowl of cereal, we each had our own fat little pitcher of milk to pour on it. Mine was a round yellow rooster and I still have it. Later the pitcher collection was let go and my mother collected colored glass on glass shelves in front of a window that had no view. When she died, we threw most of it away. It was mostly worthless stuff, but in my mother's lifetime it served a purpose.

Collections are civilized. They signal enough affluence for some extras. They are an occasion for demonstrating knowledge and recounting adventures. People are impressed and maybe envious. They are a way of recording memories, preserving a bit of material culture from a beloved past.

In the taxonomy-obsessed 19th century, collectors acquired one-of-each plants or pots or bird skins. They felt entitled to take bird eggs or arrowheads or even the bones of dead people. In the more value-oriented earlier times, Popes commissioned and accepted gifts of fabulous vessels studded with gems. Institutions accepted all these collections, certifying that they were important and studying them for the information they carried, though it takes money and expertise to study objects. Collections without study are only hoarding.

This is what I’m sneaking up on: institutions that are entrusted with collections (art galleries, historical societies, libraries) are now embarked on something like the stock market, except that they are dealing in solid objects: paintings, sculptures, Native American artifacts, antique furniture, first editions and estate jewelry. Auctions abound everywhere. Open an art magazine and you’ll see the ads. Try the websites: is one of the most active. All over the planet objects are being moved into and out of vaults, warehouses, private ownership, and galleries.

Much of this material is owned by institutions, given into their care by people who thought they were preserving the status of their family or the work of their lifetime. The institutions were thought to be more trustworthy because they were governed by boards of trustees. But the boards were all too willing to delegate supervision and decision to directors, curators, and other bureaucrats -- many of them totally uneducated in the fields they were governing. Especially in the West, these institutions have been vulnerable to corruption.

The most direct corruption has always been the removal of objects. I hear rumors constantly about things intercepted at the international border, slipped to friends visiting warehouses, or sold as “duplicates.” What is more subtle is the conversion of materials to money through quiet "de-accessioning" so that it can be manipulated in various financial “instruments” or even used to swell salaries and improve buildings, a practice condemned by professional organizations, but hardly unusual.

This situation is aggravated by lawyers who seek out aged persons with accumulated assets and possibly alienated families or simply no surviving family, convert their land and possessions into money as a “trust” with themselves as the administrator who has no accountability to any other governmental or interested party. Lawyers pass laws, based on the idea of confidentiality which can be an obsession for an old person with a considerable estate, and include many little trapdoors, safety exits, and other “instruments” that will hold them safe from harm. The idea that lawyers police each other has become laughable. The idea that wills are witnessed by objective parties equally so, when the witness is an employee of the lawyer. The idea that the media will be interested is fantasy.

I speak not from personal experience but from observing the estate of Bob Scriver. In theory it remains sequestered in a steel warehouse in Helena. When the original inventory is mysteriously lost and all those who know what should be there have died, the trucks will back up to the loading dock around back where no one can see them. The money that Bob meant to pay for a wing or a building to house his work has already disappeared. It was rumored to be millions. It’s all rumors and suspicions. Nothing a person could prove, especially without hiring a lawyer.

No comments: