Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Gift of Ephemera - Replicated Antique Christmas Cards

As I sat in a class on antiques earlier this fall, the instructor showed us a replicated artifact. A question about the motivation for making copies of historical items ensued and over the length of my 6-week course the subject of copies was re-visited over and over again. At one point, I raised my hand to give my two-cents as a history professional with an alternate perspective. We are all aware of forgeries, recognizing the desire for some to dupe professionals or to con eager buyers of materials to make a buck off of them. Museums, libraries and archives often run into objects of questionable authenticity. (Off the top of my head I can think of at least two very recent inquiries into the authenticity of found Picasso drawings and Ansel Adams photographs.) However, I was realizing that the people interested in antiques were seeming to consider all replications as "forgeries." I had never really thought about this before this time.  Replications are not always created with malicious intent and can be a boon to historical institutions that wish to share what they have. Yes, of course, cultural heritage institutions re-create and sell items to make a little money in the process, but there is no design on passing them off as the real thing.

The original item shown in the class was a kitchen aid from the 18th century. (Unfortunately, my full memory of the object itself is faulty so I'll make no pretense to state exactly what the item was, but as I remember it it was some kind of stone trivet or pan.) The "forgery" looked to me like something I would pick up in a museum gift shop. The instructor told us that often such items are made in China and flood the market with the intention of duping prospective collectors of a popular item. The popularity of specific items ebbs and flows, so the U.S. market could be flooded with different items that make their way into the antique world and float around for ages.  So this all got me wondering, how often do the items that museums create for their gift shops fool people who think they are the "real McCoy."

Above are antique "replica" images with full disclosure intact on the front of the item. Though I'm pretty sure that no one would confuse this with the real thing, in light of my antiques class I am glad that it is blatantly put out there. This is a booklet that was given to me by my friend Regina as an early Christmas present. (She was so excited to give it to me that she couldn't wait and her enthusiasm, as always, was infectious.) The booklet  includes 6 pages of perforated and replicated cards. Each postcards says "Merrimack Publishing Company, N.Y...Printed in Hong Kong. REPLICA OF ANTIQUE ORIGINAL." They REALLY want to make sure that you know this is not the real item, but there is no mention of where the real items are located. 

A quick Internet search of "Merrimack Publishing" did not yield detailed information about the company itself, but the search did reveal that most of their items were selling in out of print bookstores. Items included replicated ephemera similar to mine, reproduced children's and history books. The word "Replica" appeared over and over. I also did a quick business search through my local library's databases to no avail. I am still left wondering where the originals of my replications are housed. I will probably trot to my local library later to see what I can dig up in traditional sources.

Ephemera is a wonderful gift that can be quite meaningful. The historic images in my item are lovely. Should I mind that they are not original? Perhaps not, but I would love my item better with a history and if I find out more about the publishing company that might be good enough for me. If I can find the location of the original items, that would be even better, but I'm not sure how much time I will devote to that task... It is interesting to see the old-fashioned images that are really flaring up my Christmas spirit and the generosity of my friend in thinking of me when she purchased these makes them extra special. Though I don't get the excited feeling I generally have when I touch something old and can dream about the people who touched it before me, there is certainly much to appreciate in this replicated historical item. My daughter will certainly admire the cherubs and Santa when I show this to her. The replica will be a useful tool to teach children about archives...I just wish that I hadn't seen one perforated card from this book advertised online for 9 dollars. I am left with my torn antique class feeling all over again

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