WHEN JOAN MATHESON, A COLLECTOR OF 90 YEARS STANDING DIED, her daughter Karen had the onerous task of clearing up and going through each piece of paper in an endeavour she took on to respect her mother’s wishes.
Karen and the Ephemera Society met up after she sent this message to the ESA website:
I just found your site amongst my Mum’s papers. I think my Mother (Joan Matheson) who died last August was a member. I know she used to go to the Fairs at Camberwell. I have come down from Cairns and am faced with selling her vast collections. I am trying to do that without giving them all away. Can anyone point me in the right direction
as to how I can honour my Mum’s wishes and attain a fair price for her collections, please?
Karen grew up with her mother’s collecting but didn’t anticipate the sheer enormity and size of the task involved in disposing of the collections, until after her mother died. Karen has learned a lot through the process, stating it would have been so much easier if she’d known it when she started.
Collecting from childhood
Joan Matheson was always a collector. She died in August 2021, on the brink of her 96th birthday. The house contained about 90 years of collecting; it truly was a massive collection.
When Karen and her siblings were growing up, there were small personal collections, of say, birthday, Christmas, sympathy and thank-you cards. There was other older, important material from Joan’s childhood – in 1936 she’d become a junior member of the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows (her father was a very active member). Joan kept the framed illustrated certificate of membership and the sash and the Lodge ritual and lecture book from 1936. Also, from this time in Joan’s life, Karen found a scrapbook about Shirley Temple, compiled in the 1930s. Karen said her mother once commented that her love affair with ephemera began as a four-year-old and she’d never thrown out anything, not even one piece of paper – since.
After Joan’s husband Mick died in 1984, the collecting snowballed and expanded. The house was big, with a huge double length garage and the grown children’s bedrooms were empty. So, one bedroom became a museum filled to the brim with anything old: newspapers dating back to the 1930s, royalty magazines, badges, postcards, marbles, old glassware, dolls, tennis racquets, toy cars, games, books, christening frocks, vases, shells, clothes and tins etc. Joan had more than 3,000 books, hundreds of records, videos and postcards. She was into genealogy and had gathered material and books relating to certain parts of England. As well as photo albums, she kept scrapbooks and albums about overseas travels and even local political campaign information including documenting large developments in her area.
One of the collections related to her husband, Mick’s coal business at Caulfield Railway Station. There was a pile of business cards promising unbroken briquettes along with tools, including a very large pitchfork of extra width and tines to move coal without breaking it.
Luckily, Joan was extremely organised – everything was meticulously grouped by its type of material, or in the case of books, by subject. There was just lots of it.
As Joan got older Karen asked her to think about disposing of her collections. However, Joan made no attempt to downsize, as she was adamant that she wanted everything to be just as it was when she died. Which is what happened.
Downsizing, after Joan’s death
Karen and her daughter took on the task of disposing of the estate, as Joan had left notes as to what she wanted done with various things, with what she thought they were worth. Unfortunately, Joan thought everything was valuable, yet this just wasn’t the case.
Joan had even written notes hinting about the value of individual items and who to contact about disposing of certain collections, however, other than Rick Milne, the people she referred to had long since passed away. The family were in an absolute quandary as to where to star
Some of the collections were valuable
Karen called in two auction houses who went through the house identifying quite a lot of material suitable for auction – 50 boxes went to one and the other took a smaller truckload. (That was in April 2022, and until recently and after chase-up phone calls, Joan’s material will be put up for auction over the next six months.)
Karen and her family organised a two-day garage sale which took a fortnight to set up. As soon as it was listed people started dropping by trying to get first access. Before the garage sale, Karen invited in some dealers others had put her in touch with. They came through and bought items that Karen thought later were not favourable for her.
Two ESA members followed up Karen’s request on the website, and visited and suggested certain items might be of more interest and so value than Karen had thought; for example, writing pads with 60s movie stars on the covers and some children’s books including Denis the Menace.
They also bought a few items for ESA members with well-known collecting interests, for example contemporary Australian greeting cards like these examples from William Moore Australia, Richmond, Vic., 1980s.
On the garage sale weekend, there was a reasonable crowd, yet some were just looking. Some tools, books, ornaments, tins, crockery and ephemera actually sold. Yet Karen felt she was flying blind and found it difficult to adjust to the underhand methods of some rogue, second-hand dealers. After the garage sale, another dealer came through and bought quite a lot of the remaining material; this snowballed with more dealers coming through and picking up items, all at very cheap prices.
Having spent a month in Melbourne Karen had to return to Cairns. Her daughter cleared the remainder of the house and readied it for auction, a long process of more hard work. Masses of stuff was taken to the op shop.
Last steps and lessons
The house was sold to a developer and Karen came down again for two weeks to finalise the clearance, sell remaining items as well as giving away a huge amount, to what she hopes are good homes, doing her best in respecting her mum’s wishes. Karen kept some of Joan’s clothes and jewellery and her country music records. Letters from children and grandchildren were gifted back to them. She also kept only one of the business cards – the rest were scooped as a bargain by a final visitor.
Karen states this was the most arduous, traumatic task she’s ever undertaken. She had read through every word her mother wrote, respecting the value Joan had put into a life of collecting. Clearly, Joan had no concept of how hard it would be, and could never have appreciated the diminishing interest in many of her collections – her excellent compilation of English history, as example.
In considering lessons learnt, Karen suggests, if you are a collector please try to dispose of your collection while you are still here. It was heartbreaking having to give away the remainder of the collections, without a collector’s knowledge as to whether the material was valuable. She felt it put her on the back foot, as if the family ‘were lambs led to the slaughter’.
Karen said she is eternally grateful to the assistance given by the members of the Ephemera Society, principally Rick Milne and Edwin Jewell, for their honesty and guidance through this very distressing time in her life – she says they ‘gave her hope’.
This article was first published in the Ephemera Newsletter no.18, of April 2023. If you want to read about ephemera and support the Ephemera society, then join the Society here.