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City Museum anniversary

Steve Alvarez, a worker for sculptors Robert and Gail Cassilly, secures Robert Cassilly's praying mantis. The big bug guards the doorway of the couple's new City Museum. Oct. 03, 1997 Post-Dispatch file photo

Even local professionals, such as auction appraisers and museum curators and directors, have different relationships with stuff.

The City Museum’s relationship? It’s complicated.

“We control the market on Hostess cupcake pans,” says Rick Erwin with a sigh. Which is what happens when several thousand Hostess cupcake, Twinkie and Ding Dong pans come up at auction when the factory here closed in 2012. “Well, we just have to have them,” he says.

Erwin is the director of the City Museum, the kid and adult playground downtown where a ventilation system serves as a fish slide and Vess Soda bottles make up a wall. They’ve been building walls with the Hostess pans, too.

Their philosophy toward stuff? If you use it, it’s not hoarding. It just may have to sit around a while in storage before they come up with an idea for it. Which is why he’s currently figuring out ways to use 150 bicycle wheels he recently acquired from Bicycle Works, a local nonprofit that teaches kids how to fix bikes.

The City Museum’s goal in collecting stuff isn’t necessarily just to have it; they turn down offers and know when too much is enough. And while their goal isn’t preservation, and isn’t limited to items with a St. Louis history, it’s nice when they can save something, such as the facade from the old Edward Bates School in St. Louis. More than once, they’ve heard grandparents walking under the facade with grandchildren, telling stories about their days at that school.

Terry Beye is a certified appraiser for Selkirk Auctioneers and Appraisers in St. Louis. By the time Beye sees many items at the auction, sentimental value isn’t such a factor; lawyers are looking to clear out estates, or people simply want to part with a collection.

“My job is to evaluate the stuff, appraise it, give it provenance, and sell it, and send it back out into the world,” he said. “My job is to maximize the dollar of the consigner.”

He says the most common St. Louis things he sees in his work are items from the 1904 World’s Fair, Veiled Prophet ball and parade memorabilia, sports items and beer-related items. But even then, the market for such things determines their value. He had one man come to him with about 400 Veiled Prophet ball souvenirs, such as trays and little containers, that sold as a collection for about $700. Usually, such pieces sell for about $10-$60 each.

Beye recalls one day he went to a home in Glendale to look at a couple of pieces of furniture. As he walked by a bedroom, a lamp caught his eye. He asked to look more closely at it and noticed its shade was Tiffany. The base, a green-double handled vase, was Teco. And on the bottom of the vase was a sticker that said it was a gold medal winner at the 1904 World’s Fair.

He gave the couple what he thought was a conservative estimate: $30,000.

“Oh, my God,” the couple said. “Our grandchildren play in this room every day. Can you get it out of our house today?”

Their bedside lamp that escaped the wrath of grandchildren ended up selling for $30,000 at auction.

Chris Gordon is the director of the library and collections at the Missouri History Museum. He’s in charge of about 175,000 objects and more than 1 million photographs and prints, not to mention almost two miles worth of documents if he laid them end to end.

If somebody brings in an item to be considered for the museum’s collection, it comes before an acquisitions committee, which meets and talks about the item. They discuss whether they already have something like it and if it has a good story or other historic value. “If it has a true historic value, it’s not going to be left behind,” he said. “If we have too many of them, maybe we have another piece that’s equally valuable, we try to find another home for it. We would work with another museum or repository.”

Probably the item they’re most known for is what is known as the elkskin journal, one of the original William Clark journals from the corps of discovery. It’s the only known field copy from the expedition, he said. His favorite artifacts are two dog sledges that were used by Adm. Robert Peary on an expedition to the North Pole in 1909. Peary gave them to the city of St. Louis because Simmons Hardware, a local company, partially outfitted his expedition.

Figuring out what might be historically significant in the future means he has to be aware of events now, which is why the museum collected posters from the Ferguson protests or the recent Women’s March downtown. “That stuff is important now,” said Gordon. “It will be even more important in 25 to 50 years.”Valerie Schremp Hahn • 314-340-8246 @valeriehahn on Twitter vhahn@post-dispatch.com