Downsizing collections

Sales and donations of books and photographs

Over the past decade I have gifted  books and art works to friends, professional associates, interns, and even to long term researcher correspondents and photographer-descendants. I do so while encouraging them not to put the prints away in boxes but to enjoy them on display (out of direct sunlight and not above an active fireplace).

Sometimes perfect preservation isn’t the only life a print can have.

The responses have often made the exercise doubly satisfying; a bunch of flowers from a researcher in France I have not actually ever met but corresponded with for years;  a wonderful interpretation of the images came from a writer-friend and gifts to artists have also given a sense that the work was going somewhere where it would be appreciated and viewed regularly. I sometimes get snaps from recipients of works on display.

A large group of women photographers from partner Paul Costigan’s collection went to Bendigo art Gallery (image below).  We occasionally get snaps of the works on display. Collectors like this feedback on the new life being enjoyed by their former collections.



The Northern Territory Museum and Gallery sent me a picture of  the work (below) that I had donated from prematurely deceased artist Elaine Campaner – I followed her career from the outset  but we never actually met.


Below are 19th photographs by Captain Sweet of a Tasmanian waterfall (left/top) and a Nicholas Caire of the Nepean wool washing (left/bottom) beautifully matted and framed now  and on the wall next to a Christian Thompson photowork Invaded dreams, 2012 from his residency at The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford – a series I love.


There have also been gifts to museums in honour of friends; an Olive Cotton view out the Clarence street studio on 1942 when she was manager during Max Dupain’s wartime absence has gone to the art collection at my alma mater  — Sydney University, in memory of  the art historian Dr Joan Kerr.

I have also followed my own advice and taken small groups of favourite works  out of boxes and having them framed. We are now planning to get rid of all tall cabinetry so as to have more wall space for a salon style hang. Having emptied four book cases some walls will become available.

A  fellow  curator/academic/  told me, a large library at home is ‘the engine room’ of research. However, retired associates across the world have told of the need to rationalise their art libraries. This can involve facing realities as to whether you are ever going to get to do that long article or book on an esoteric topic.

Very few private art libraries will be eligible for Cultural Gifts Program donations and those that qualify tend to be of the rare and antiquarian category or show the intellectual history of the collector.  Make an inquiry at your nearest state art museum just in case.

If your books are mostly from your own lifetime there is a good chance most art libraries already have a copy. Very specialised topics however, might only have a small duplication and then that can be accepted by the donor institution.  A colonial Australian library went to a long established religious institution.  An ancient Asian architecture library also went to a public archive as there was less than 5% duplication with existing holdings.

However, in retirement or with moving house reduction or dispersal of an art library can be quite a task. One tip was to cull general works to free up a ‘reserves’ bookcase for reference books you do want to keep.

Various works - some from my collection - at Bendigo Art Gallery

Every book disposal option costs you time and probably money. 

Lifeline type charity book depots are the easiest if you are near one.

But think laterally ask art schools or universities if you can to put boxes out for students. Offer mint copies to an art centre with a shop as quality pre-loved copies.

Scour the shelves for books that might appeal to someone you are meeting.

I have been very fortunate to have the wonderful Art Gallery of New South Wales  and Edmund and Joanna Capon Research Library take  regular consignments over the past five years at a pace I and they, could manage. I still check off each box of books on the library catalogue to ensure it is not already held — so time and money involved but it is my curatorial alma mater.

I particular value that the Capon library is normally open on Saturdays so that those who can’t get to it during office hours have a chance to do their research.

NB  AGNSW Research Library is current closed during relocation until late 2021.

So do a calculation. Count number of shelves and average number of books per shelf for maybe different types of books (paperback versus coffee table tomes) and estimate at least 15 minutes per shelf to take down books and put in the supply of boxes you have already assembled in different sizes.

If the disposal boxes have to be transported other than in the back of your car they need to have bubble wrap linings and at least a bit of reinforcing tape in both directions. In my experience the boxes get dropped on their corners and very good books arrive with smashed corners.

A standard bookcase shelf tends to be 1–2 manageable boxes preferably in 5–10 lk lots.

A max of 23 klg airport luggage weight applies at post offices but you have added costs in reinforcing the package.

I bought a weighing machine (similar to what  is used in post offices) and have armed myself with a cutter, numerous tapes and bubble wrap to protect good book corners especially from damage in transit.

Second hand book shops are glutted and don’t take the dozens of cardboard boxes they once did.

Public libraries rarely take collections unless of specially rare or specialised items and you need to provide a detailed listing first and pay the transport.

I have not tried  book auctions  or asking a specialist art book dealer to come and assess the collection for what is saleable.

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For more on Parting With Your Art — - click here