Groups try to pin down collectors

Greek organizations aim to keep pins in members' hands

August 14, 2002|By Katherine Rosman | Katherine Rosman,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CLEVELAND - In a basement room at the airport Sheraton, 15 members of the Fraternity Pin Collector Society huddle around a conference table.

James Bond would be proud of the planning. Information about the July date and place of the sixth-annual conference, called Pinfest, had been kept in strict confidence among members. A false date had been posted on the society's Yahoo Web page. Still, nerves are frayed. Occasionally, someone sneaks a look at the display behind them.

Laid out on five banquet tables is perhaps the largest collection of vintage sorority and fraternity pins in the country. Affixed to swaths of velvet and displayed in glass cases are the group's collective glory: some 5,000 pins with a combined worth in the tens of thousands of dollars. Some are studded with pearls and diamonds. Many date to the 19th century.

After a cursory discussion of the tricks of the trade - say, which small-town antiques shops might still harbor, unaware of its value, a Kappa Kappa Gamma pin from 1949 - the conversation turns to the topic of the day, Mary Silzel.

To the rest of the world, Mary Silzel, 63, might be just another grandmother frittering away her senior years on eBay. But to those gathered at the Pinfest conference, she is the enemy - a one-woman wrecking crew determined to keep them from collecting pins at any cost.

So the battle line is drawn. On one side are the collectors who spend hours on eBay looking for pins with historic or artistic value. On the other are people like Silzel, loyal sorority and fraternity members who spend thousands of dollars to keep pins out of nonmembers' hands.

Their fervor has collectors watching their backs - afraid of Greek loyalists and angry e-mails - and the price of pins skyrocketing. A Kappa Kappa Gamma pin that might have sold for $5 five years ago went for $1,025 last month to a sorority sister working in league with Silzel.

A loyal 1956 Kappa Kappa Gamma alumna of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., Silzel joined this battle in early 1998, when she first ventured onto eBay and was, she says, shocked to find Kappa Kappa Gamma pins being bought by people who were not Kappa sisters. "I thought, `How terrible!'" she recalls from her home office in Orange County, Calif.

Silzel was soon an eBay regular, outbidding deep-pocketed collectors for every key-shaped Kappa pin she could click her mouse on. Within months she formed Keepers of the Key, a group of about 40 sisters around the country, united to stop people who are, in Silzel's words, "determined to steal our pins and then hold them ransom."

Ian Marks, a founder of Pinfest and the only one there who did not ask for anonymity, says angry sorority sisters post information about where he lives and what pins he owns on a Greek Web site. "You have no idea how evil it is," he says of the hostility.

Like many of the collectors, Marks is a Greek letter organization alumnus (Sigma Phi Epsilon), and insists that if not for people like him, vintage badges would have been melted down to scrap metal long before eBay.

Nearly every Greek letter organization, known as a GLO, objects to outside ownership of its pins. But without the resources to purchase the increasing number of pins for auction (more than 100 are offered on eBay every week), national headquarters are searching for ways to keep pins from entering the open market.

When the administrators of Sigma Kappa sorority learns of the death of a member, for example, they mail what can only be characterized as a bereavement letter for the eBay age from their national vice president for alumnae affairs, Marianne Chattin Burton.

"DECEASED was a recognized member of our Sorority and she will be missed by many of her sisters," the letter reads. "As a member of Sigma Kappa, DECEASED was provided with a triangular-shaped badge bearing the Greek letters sigma kappa. ... If DECEASED's badge was not buried with her, we would be most grateful if you would please return the badge to Sigma Kappa National Headquarters."

The retrieval of pins on eBay is left to grass-roots volunteers like Silzel, who has emerged as the grande dame of electronic auction warfare. Her Keepers of the Key have spent more than $17,000 of their own money in the last two years to "rescue" nearly 100 pins, which they dispatch to the sorority's Heritage Museum in Columbus, Ohio, or sell to sorority sisters who have somehow lost theirs.

Silzel believes in a by-any-means-necessary approach to bringing Kappa keys "home to Kappa," as she puts it. She and her Keepers of the Key barrage owners of Kappa keys with e-mail messages, imploring them to sell or give up their keys.

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