Friday, October 18, 2013

Setting A Price On History

The rule of thumb for evaluating the worth of some artifact is to ask what someone is willing to pay for it. You might think something must be worth a fortune because it's old and, you assume, rare, but what that item is really worth is based on what a buyer is willing to pay.

Rufus McDonald has discovered that sad fact, to his shock and frustration. He thought he had uncovered his fortune in a collection of forgotten documents. Then when he tried to turn history into gold, he was struck by reality.

The contractor was cleaning out an attic in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, and found a trunk full of old documents. He kept them, thinking that they might have some value because they were old. The contents of the trunk belonged to Richard Greener, not that Mr. McDonald had any idea who Richard Greener was until he spoke to an appraiser.
Richard Greener

As it turned out, Richard Greener was the first African-American graduate of Harvard University in 1870. He was a dean at Howard University's law school, a diplomat and a scholar. Time had faded his star, however, and by 2009 when the papers were found, Mr. Greener had passed from the fame he once enjoyed. He was largely forgotten, in spite of his incredible achievements at a time when slavery was only just ending.

Harvard University has an enormous endowment, don't they? So Mr. McDonald approached them and offered the collection of documents for their holdings.

What Harvard offered was not anywhere close to what Mr. McDonald thought he should be getting. This was Mr. Greener's diploma, the first issued to a black man by Harvard. Was there no value in history? Or was Harvard just low-balling the contractor, thinking they could put one over on him because he was not a Harvard graduate himself, and therefore not particularly bright.

It's a long way from $65,000 to $7500, as anyone who watches Pawn Stars regularly would know.

Mr. McDonald was insulted at the offer, and walked away, threatening to burn the papers if that's how Harvard felt about it.

Harvard claims that they came in low because they didn't have an appraisal in hand at the time. Which would indicate that they value history at $7500. That's what old diplomas and miscellaneous papers are worth. As if they had no idea who Mr. Greener was.


The university also says that they came back with a second, higher, offer, but Mr. McDonald says he never got a counter-offer. Mr. McDonald is also done with Harvard.

He sold another diploma and Mr. Greener's law license to the University of South Carolina for $52.000. The university was delighted to get their hands on that bit of history because the law school diploma was issued at the height of the Reconstruction Era when the school enrolled its very first African American students. For a school located in what was once slave territory, the cradle of the Civil War, the value of history is quite high indeed.

Mr. McDonald is shopping his treasure trove around, hoping that others will recognize the value of the history he uncovered in an attic in a derelict house in Englewood. Someone who realizes that the records of a man who broke ground in racial equality have more worth than the value of some old paper from some old black guy.

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