All the Presidents’ Memorabilia

on Tuesday, 27 January 2015. Posted in General Autograph News

By SERGE F. KOVALESKI

Jordan M. Wright’s collection of political memorabilia is unquestionably prodigious.

Consisting of perhaps a million-plus items, amassed over four decades, it includes an assortment of ephemera like a George W. Bush piñata and a portrait of Lincoln made of seed and saplings, but also legions of important historical artifacts, like a George Washington picture flag from his swearing in and a purse with a Warren G. Harding logo that was used to attract newly enfranchised female voters.
Hundreds of the pieces were featured in a 2008 exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Most recently, the Smithsonian Institution expressed interest in acquiring a few thousand items from the collection, which was also the subject of a 2008 book by Mr. Wright. But today, none of the artifacts are available for public view. For almost seven years, the collection has been unceremoniously sitting in boxes and crates behind the orange roll-up doors of storage units in Long Island City, Queens.

When Mr. Wright unexpectedly died in his sleep, at 50, from an embolism in 2008, he took with him critical knowledge of the collection — which was largely archived in his head but nowhere else. This did not leave his estate with many options since few museums can devote the time or money needed to sift through a vast assortment of objects.

Now, Mr. Wright’s son Austin, 23, an aspiring political consultant, is searching for ways to get the objects indexed and researched so they can emerge from obscurity and be housed, perhaps at a new museum in New York as his father had envisioned. Another option, the son said, would be to lend some of the items to cultural institutions or show them at pop-up museums.

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Austin Wright with some of the political memorabilia collected by his father, Jordan M. Wright.

But the younger Mr. Wright knows it is unlikely he can get the collection fully cataloged unless he raises substantial money — about $1.5 million just to get started, by one expert’s estimate.

“My father had great stories about how he found this stuff, but he did not curate the collection because he did not think he would die so young,” Austin Wright said. He added, “For me, this is an enormous undertaking and a huge amount of pressure that keeps me up at night trying to figure out how to honor his life and passion.”

Jordan Wright, a lawyer, photographer and publisher who was born in Brooklyn, started collecting political memorabilia at the age of 10 when he stopped into a Robert F. Kennedy presidential campaign office in Manhattan and scooped up a bunch of buttons. That youthful interest would evolve into an obsession, earning him a name within the political collectibles world as he shopped for items at auction houses and fairs, as well as from private dealers, antique shops, junk stores and websites.

Legally, his collection is controlled by a nonprofit organization he set up in 2006. He hoped that the entity, the Museum of Democracy, would one day create a permanent space to showcase his memorabilia. In the years since Jordan Wright’s death, the collection has been overseen by the nonprofit’s board, led by Austin Wright.

While mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg was so impressed by the collection that he gave more than $400,000 of his own money to finance the curation of the part exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York. Mr. Bloomberg had visited Mr. Wright’s SoHo apartment at the suggestion of Kevin Sheekey, a top aide, who had seen the collection in 2005.

“There were banners, lanterns and posters hanging on the walls, and rows and rows of buttons,” said Mr. Sheekey, now an executive at Bloomberg L.P. “And you walk around, and it just keeps going and going. And you are not walking into the Smithsonian or the Met — you are walking into a home in SoHo.”

Mr. Sheekey said Mr. Bloomberg had a “wow moment” during his tour and asked the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs to work with the museum to include items from the collection in the exhibition “Campaigning for President: New York and the American Election.” Kate D. Levin, then cultural affairs commissioner, said Mr. Wright’s dream of a new museum based entirely on his collection would be difficult to fulfill.

“Establishing a new museum is a steep mountain to climb because it gets you into real estate and other complex issues that are expensive,” Ms. Levin, now a principal at Bloomberg Associates, said. But she suggests the Wrights may be able to form a partnership with a major university in New York.

Last year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington sent curators to look at the collection and told the Wright family that it was interested in acquiring between 1,000 and 3,000 objects.

“The Wright Collection contains a range of both very significant and seemingly trivial objects in all shapes and forms that were distributed by the national political parties,” says a letter from the Smithsonian to the Wright family. “It does a wonderful job of recording the exuberance and activism of those who influenced and fashioned our national politics.”

The Smithsonian made clear the collection would need to be sorted and arranged by someone other than the museum. And the institution suggested that a large part could be sold to defray some costs of the curation and the care of items the museum might add to its collection.

But Austin Wright said he wanted to preserve his father’s legacy and was not interested in selling anything but duplicates, even though storage has cost his family about $260,000 so far.

“It would be a shame to have the collection dispersed with the wind,” said Ted Hake, founder of Hake’s Americana & Collectibles, an auction house specializing in historical and popular culture collectibles. Mr. Hake, who appraised the collection several years ago, said Jordan Wright “had deeper pockets than the average person in this hobby and found spectacular items for most candidates.”

Among the notable items in the collection is a sprawling assortment of pins from a multitude of national political campaigns, as well as canes used by presidents, paper lanterns and masks and a number of Abraham Lincoln campaign flags, which alone can range in price from around $10,000 to $40,000.

Brent D. Glass, an adviser to the Wrights and director emeritus of the National Museum of American History, said a paramount task would be to inventory items so curators could select pieces of interest. But he said an inventory would be difficult because so much of the collection is in unmarked boxes.

“There is no guide for those storage lockers,” he said. Mr. Glass also pointed out that the items do not appear to be stored under ideal museum conditions for climate control.

Sarah M. Henry, deputy director and chief curator at the Museum of the City of New York, said there have been discussions of another possible project with the Wright materials, but there are no concrete plans.

Margaret K. Hofer, curator of decorative arts for the New-York Historical Society, said she is interested in some of Mr. Wright’s artifacts for a 2016 exhibition that will highlight memorabilia from presidential elections during the Vietnam War era. She said she hoped Austin Wright could pinpoint the location of items like paper campaign dresses featuring the names of candidates from that period.

Ms. Hofer said that Jordan Wright had given her a tour of the collection in 2004. “I was blown away by the sheer quantity, the quality, the depth of knowledge and the passion,” she said.