Not every collectible asset holds its value. Anyone who ever inherited their parents’ china collection and assumed they might be able to finance a nice vacation in the South of France, only to find the same pieces littering eBay for tens of dollars instead of the thousands they anticipated, is familiar with the way the market for items that were precious to previous generations can fluctuate. But there is fresh evidence that the market for the artifacts of Texas history remains quite robust.
On Saturday, Dallas-based Heritage Auctions sold the collection of Texas history enthusiast Ted Lusher. The items in Lusher’s collection ranged from impossibly rare to merely very old. But across the board, nearly all of his more than 165 books, manuscripts, maps, and other artifacts—whether they were expected to fetch hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars—found enthusiastic buyers, with the auction bringing in a total of more than $2.63 million.
“The market is alive and well, and that usually means that there are a good batch of new collectors entering into the marketplace,” Steve Ivy, CEO of Heritage, told Texas Monthly. He noted that the less expensive items in the Lusher auction were affordable enough to allow younger history buffs just beginning their collections to get started. An 1848 first edition manuscript of James Henry Carleton documenting the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican-American War, for example, sold for a relatively affordable $199, while an 1846 circular published by Mexican minister of the interior José María Lafragua announcing the capture of the city of Tampico during the same conflict fetched a similarly reasonable $229. “This is a hobby with a low point of entry, where you can get in at a relatively low price and buy a lot of interesting stuff,” Ivy said.
There are a few factors that keep a market, such as the one for Texana, thriving, Ivy explained. Once upon a time, the market for rare stamps was robust and active; today, Ivy says, “the average age of a stamp collector is eighty-one, and next year, the average age of a stamp collector will be eighty-two.” So what makes Texas history relevant to both young collectors and those who pour big bucks into acquiring marquee pieces? “This is one of the few places in the country where they pound into your head that you’re from Texas, and you’re supposed to be proud of it,” said Ivy, who’s a newly minted member of the Texas State Historical Association. “Texas is, and always has been, heavily collected. There are some pretty good-sized California collectors, because they have a pretty storied past, but Texas is different from every other state.”
The top end of the auction, which set new records, offers some proof of that. The highest-selling item was a 1879 map by Charles William Pressler and A. B. Langermann, which is regarded as the first truly accurate map of the state. Only two other copies of the map are known to exist, both of which are held by institutions; one is at the U.S. Geological Survey in Virginia, while the other is in the Jesse Wallace Williams Map Collection at Abilene’s Hardin-Simmons University. Lusher’s copy sold for $705,000, a new record for a map of Texas.
That wasn’t the only item to break a record. A first edition copy of a manuscript published in 1840 by Francis Moore Jr., perhaps best known as the second mayor of Houston, reached a price of $519,000. Moore’s volume is also one of just three known to exist, and the sale amount nearly doubled the $275,000 that the last copy, which Heritage took to auction in 2007, fetched. Finally, a rare intact copy of Stephen F. Austin’s famed map of Texas—published in 1846, making it the only edition to enter circulation after Texas entered the United States—sold for $118,750, which, while not a record setter, nonetheless affirms that the market for Texas history isn’t going anywhere.
Ivy didn’t go into detail about the buyers on the upper end of the auction, but there are a few characteristics he explained they all have in common. Who are the collectors who dropped a half million dollars or more on this auction? “Rich people,” Ivy laughed. “As far as I know, they’re all native Texans. There’s always been a disproportionate amount of people in the energy business involved, obviously because they usually have money, they’re usually Texans, and they’re generally sort of outdoorsy. They’re part of the old Texas milieu, perhaps, is the best way of explaining it.”