By James Hannah
The Associated Press
DAYTON - Wright State University was prepared to bid up to $8,000 for a 1909 letter from Wilbur Wright that would have filled a gap in the school's collection of the aviation pioneer's materials.
Bidding climbed so fast that the university didn't get a chance to get in its offer before the bids exceeded its top price. The letter sold Thursday in an online auction for $12,741.
Museums and archives are having a tougher time getting Orville and Wilbur Wright items as collectors use online auctions to compete for the memorabilia, which experts say have increased in popularity and price since last year's centennial of the Wrights' first flight.
"We're not normally successful at auctions. We get outbid," said Dawne Dewey, director of special collections and archives at Wright State.
Wright State, which has one of the largest Wright brothers collections in the world, has been fielding more calls since the 100th anniversary from people interested in how to sell their Wright items than how to donate it, Dewey said.
"We end up having to compete to buy things that we normally would have been given," Dewey said.
The university and other places with Wright brothers collections say the rely heavily on receiving donated items because of limited funds to buy them.
"The downside is that those items are not getting into institutions where those materials will be made available to everyone" Dewey said.
While it lost out on the letter, Wright State may have submitted the winning $2,400 bid for an autographed 1910 photo of Orville sitting in an airplane next to millionaire sportsman W.K. Vanderbilt. The university was waiting from confirmation from auction officials.
But the letter written by Wilbur from a Paris hotel to a French sculptor who had asked him to pose was the big prize because there are fewer items relating to the older brother. Wilbur died at 45 in 1912 of typhoid fever, while Orville lived until 1948.
The letter would have been a good addition to Wright State's collection because it has sketches of Wilbur by the sculptor, Dewey said.
Stephen Wright, great-grandnephew of the Wright brothers, said collectors have a right to do what they want with their materials.
"But we'd rather they would donate to a place where it can be viewed by the public," he said.
The Library of Congress, which has a large collection of Wright brothers material, bid unsuccessfully in the mid-1990s for a letter from Orville. And in the late 1990s the library tried to buy a key document from the Wrights' company, but couldn't meet the dealer's price.
Leonard Bruno, the library's science manuscript specialist, said online auctions have made buying and selling items easier; and television programs such as Antiques Roadshow have made people more aware of items' values.
"We are just among many competitors," Bruno said. "We're often restricted by budgetary considerations. When it comes to an auction, we usually can't compete. We can't cry too much because we'd be weeping all the time."
Bruno said his biggest concern is when large collections remain in private hands because researchers cannot examine the material for historical information.
Randle Egbert, of Milford, has a collection of more than 100 photographs taken of and by the Wright brothers, including an Orville-autographed photo of the first flight. Egbert bought many of them in the late 1990s from a person in Dayton.
Egbert said collectors play an important role by finding and preserving materials.
"Collecting is good because it allows someone to put something together that may not be put together," he said. "A museum can't go around and do all this picking."
Egbert has donated a few of his photos to Wright State and the Dayton Art Institute. And last July, he loaned the art museum 43 photos from his collection to be used in the anniversary celebration.
Egbert won't rule out donating his entire collection to an institution in the future.
"My intentions right now are to hold it," he said.
Larry Krug, co-founder of the Association of Collecting Clubs, believes most of the museum-quality material in the United States remains in private hands.
"You can go to eBay or auction sites and you can accumulate a collection of great depth in six months," he said. "You don't have to hunt and seek for it."
On the Net
Wright State Archives: http://www.libraries.wright.edu/special/
Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/
Association of Collecting Clubs: http://collectors.org/
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