Monday, July 2, 2012

History for Sale--Exclusively!

For much of American history, the private papers of historically significant individuals usually found a home in a publicly accessible archive--when they were preserved at all. Government archives, historical societies, university archives, and sometimes libraries preserved the papers of the movers and shakers. Some few historically significant collections have found their way into private hands, but this was the exception rather than the rule.

So it is distressing to see the Elizabeth Bacon Custer manuscript collection going up for auction. From the description provided by the auction house, this is a huge and historically important collection, and one that has "never been scanned, copied or cataloged" according to the brochure from the auction house Williams & Williams. The collection includes three dozen binders of material, including letters between Libby and George Custer, her research notes and manuscripts for her books, transcripts of Custer's Civil War letters, and "the Custer's personal collection of stereoviews from the 1874 Black Hills expedition." Who even knew the latter existed?  The brochure gives tantalizing hints that there is blockbuster material in this collection as well:
  • A pull-out quote, "For the love of heaven, burn this as soon as you read it," is attributed to "a love letter sent to Custer from another woman."
  • The collection include a "spiral bound notebook" of 74 pages of transcripts of Custer letters, most in "old Pittman shorthand."
Libby Custer spent the long decades of her widowhood building up the myth of her late husband George Armstrong Custer, who was in truth something between a questionable officer and a genocidal maniac. Libby lived until 1933--six decades after the Battle of Little Big Horn--and devoted much of that time to writing, giving talks, and promoting a view of her late husband as an almost Christ-like figure who had given his life so that (white) others might live.

Stereoviews of the Black Hills Expedition.
However, there have always been signs that they were a much better couple after the General died than they were when he was alive. Rumor has it that this collection includes letters where George Custer threatens Libby with divorce on account of her alleged infidelity, among other items. A friend made inquiries and the starting price for the Libby Custer Collection is a quarter-of-a-million dollars. To even look at the collection you need to put down a $25,000 deposit and sign a non-disclosure agreement. Williams & Williams is marketing the material as not merely a collection but as a scoop.

What will happen next to the collection? If the historical community is fortunate, the buyer will be a well-funded private but publicly-accessible archive, and the Libby Custer Collection will become available to researches. At these prices, it seems more likely the collection will end up in private hands.

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