Collecting Mining Artifacts

Collecting Mining Artifacts

For every class of collectible there is a common thread connecting the items, regardless of their date of manufacture: the raw materials they were made from. Before any item could be manufactured, raw materials had to be harvested and processed: natural fibers for textiles, sand for glass, wood for furniture and ephemera, metals for coins, oil for plastics.

Much of what modern enthusiasts seek out would not have been available without mining our underground resources. Mining drove the Industrial Revolution: Iron ore was used to make the steel that built railroads, factories, cars and machinery; coal was used to power those factories; copper was implemented for telephone and electrical wires. Mining continues to be essential to modern economies.

Many collectors of mining artifacts have a passion for the trade though they have never s into a mine.

A cursory glance at the timeline of history establishes an absolute connection between mining and the advancement of civilization. The three early "Ages of Man" - the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age - are each characterized by advancement in mining and smelting techniques. Even in our Digital Age, new techniques have been developed to mine and reclaim the trace elements (such as palladium and platinum) needed to operate our digital devices.

The rich social, historical, and cultural context of mining gives collectors of mining artifacts a broad palette from which to choose. Mining has been pursued in virtually every developed country for thousands of years, and each country has it's own assortment of collectibles surrounding the trade. The hobby is well-supported: there are dozens of websites, magazines, and collector’s forums, plus annual North American mining shows in California, Las Vegas, Ontario, and other locations. Mining museums are commonplace in North American mining towns.

A quick check of U.S. eBay finds over 230,000 results for the search term "mining", and there are hundreds of thousands more to be found on eBay worldwide. Certainly, there is no shortage of items to collect. Let's explore the mining-artifacts collecting hobby more closely to discover what sorts of items are preferred and how values are determined. Then, we will list some collecting resources for those interested in pursuing the hobby.

A good collection of mining artifacts will have a focus, rather than being just an accumulation of paraphernalia. A particular type of mining or mining period (California Gold Rush, for example), a mining state or region (West Virginia, British Columbia, Wales) or a type of collectible (badges, tokens or lamps) are typical organizational methods. Collectors seek out items that interest them, and organize them accordingly. Most mining artifacts fall into one of five organizational categories:

  1. Ephemera: Mining-related printed materials such as equipment catalogs, postcards, letterheads and invoices, drayage papers, share certificates, maps, books, plates, photographs, art prints, safety notices, union materials, and "in memoriam" souvenirs. ("In Memoriams" were published in honor of victims of mining disasters.)
  2. Paranumismatics: "Numismatics" is coin collecting; "para-numismatics" is collecting items that are coin-like: medals, tokens, awards, pit checks (for attendance tallies) and other types of "checks" to indicate various payments and dispersals.
  3. Lamps: Perhaps the most popular mining artifact, lamps are of four general types: flame safety lamps, electric safety lamps, naked flame lamps, and helmet lamps.
  4. Tools: General hand tools such as picks, rock hammers, spades, chisels, drills and augers
  5. Badges: Popular because they are varied and colorful, thousands of badges have been issued in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Typically, badges attached to one's lapel by a pin or a button. Badges might identify an employee's position, office, organizational membership, skill set, union membership, years of service, and countless other designations.

Mining artifacts are modestly priced, so there is no great financial risk in collecting them. (Note that "artifacts" don't include jewels, minerals, etc.; those are separate collecting categories). Most mining collectibles sell for under $50 USD; few sell for more than a few hundred dollars. Nevertheless, prudence is advised when collecting any item. No matter how inexpensive an individual item might be, collections accumulate value as they grow. Items in a collection have a symbiotic effect on one another and lend cohesiveness to a collection, increasing its overall value. Questions that should be asked before purchasing an item are:

  • Is the item authentic? Ephemera are particularly subject to counterfeiting. Digital copies are easy to make from an authentic item, and antique-looking paper is commonplace. Sellers of such easy-to-manufacture fakes need to distribute them widely in order to make the effort profitable. Fakes can be discovered by searching for past sales of similar items and cross-checking serial numbers, dates, bill of lading numbers, and other indicators of "sameness". Mass-produced items made of tin and metals (lamps, badges, etc.) may also be faked, but require considerably more effort on the part of the counterfeiter and there's not much profit in the enterprise. It’s important that an item has not been modified; oil lamps that have been turned into electric table lamps are worthless.
  • Is the condition of the item up-to-par with the rest of my collection? Is it an improvement over what I already have, or will it bring down the overall aesthetic of my acquisitions? The only reason to add an item that is in poor condition is if it extremely rare.
  • As collections develop in specificity, it often becomes difficult to find suitable items so an item’s rarity becomes a factor. For example, if a collection started with a theme of "West Virginia Coal Mining", items would be fairly easy to find. If, as time progressed, a collection leaned toward a particular West Virginia coal mine (such as Matewan and the coal-wars’ Battle of Blair Mountain) items would become more difficult to find. The rarity of items in a collection has direct bearing on the value of the collection.
  • Finally, one should ask "what's the market for this item?" This question can be answered by searching eBay's "completed sales" for a given artifact. If many have been offered but few sold, the item may not be worth collecting. But, if it fills a gap in your collection, you should be able to acquire it cheaply.

Those new to the hobby can garner an overview by reading the book "Antique Mining Equipment and Collectibles" by Pearson and Bommarito. This book is perhaps the most widely read, and it is widely available in online and offline bookstores. Also good is the antique mining collector's magazine Eureka. Some mining artifact collectors have set up their own websites for buying, selling, and trading, and those can be found by performing a Google search for "antique mining collectibles".

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