Bringing Banneker's things home Still hope: Outbid at auction, museum supporters can try to borrow from new owner.

September 26, 1996

THOUGH SUPPORTERS of the new Benjamin Banneker Museum in Oella were outbid at a recent auction of Banneker artifacts, hope of enriching the museum with items belonging to the extraordinary colonial-era black scientist is not lost.

The table, candlesticks and documents sought by a local consortium were bought by a Washington banker, who intends to give most of them to a monument and visitors center devoted mainly to honoring black Civil War veterans. That these items better belong in Oella and at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis than at a visitors center focusing on events long after Banneker's death is now beside the point. What matters is that it still may be possible to bring the artifacts to Maryland.

It is common practice for museums to lend materials to other institutions. There is no reason why Banneker supporters can't negotiate periodic loans with organizers of the Civil War museum, or, for that matter, with the buyer in the event that he keeps some of the items. Both seem sympathetic to the Maryland museums' desire to display the Banneker collection and interested in giving the public access to them.

Also, the opportunity still exists to purchase other items owned by the descendant of the Ellicott family that inherited the Banneker possessions. Her refusal to work with the Maryland museums has been puzzling and discouraging, but the Banneker consortium has nothing to lose by continuing to try to persuade her to sell to them.

It is too bad that the local museums find themselves in the position of having to beg or barter for Banneker items. The D.C. banker paid $85,000 for the collection at auction -- not an exorbitant amount as these things go. Remember, not long ago somebody paid $85,000 for Caroline Kennedy's rocking horse. It wasn't unreasonable to hope that between contributions from the private sector and the Maryland Historical Trust the consortium would have been armed with $85,000 to $100,000 going into the auction, whose contents undoubtedly would have been the centerpiece of the new museum.

As it turns out, Banneker supporters are lucky in one respect: They lost to a bidder who seems to share their belief that history should be preserved and shared.

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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