Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Pedaling History Bicycle Museum: Fading into Memory

The museum had a marvellous collection of cycling ephemera, including a vast range of cycling-themed beer steins.  This one sold of US$525 at auction. (Photo: Copake Auction Inc.)

I have posted here about my wonderful visit to the Pedaling History Bicycle Museum in Orchard Park, New York, a suburb of Buffalo, in December 2008.  One of the reasons I went there through a blinding snowstorm was the planned closure of the museum and I wanted to see it before the doors were shut.  The founder, Mr. Carl Burgwardt, had endeavoured to get a new home for the museum on the Buffalo waterfront but this did not materialize.  He then found a European buyer for the collection but in the end that also did not happen.  The museum closed in November 2009 and Mr. Burgwardt passed away last May after a losing battle with cancer.

I had not realized that the transaction to sell this remarkable collection had not gone through.  Instead, the contents of the museum are being auctioned off in three separate sales.  The first took place on December 1, 2012 and the results of the auction can be seen here.  The next sale will be on April 19, 2013, followed by a final one on October 19.

Looking at the realized prices, it is interesting to note that in most cases the estimated price was far surpassed.  As a very modest collector of steel racing bicycles from the '70s and '80s (and much more the latter), I am impressed by what people are willing to pay for much earlier examples of bicycles and related memorabilia.  The high point of the auction must have been the sale of an 1892 Telegram High Wheel Safety Bicycle, the only one known to exist.  The estimated price of $5500-6500 was unambitious as the bicycle went in the end for $23,000, to which a 15% buyer's fee needs to be added.

1892 Telegram High Wheel Safety Bicycle (Photo: Copake Auction Inc.)
While on the one hand I am glad that the sale is bringing in so much money for Mr. Burgwardt's family, I find it very sad that such a marvellous collection is being dispersed.  When we had our long conversation on that snowy afternoon, he explained that much of the collection was focused on the importance of the bicycle in the booming manufacturing sector of Upstate New York.  The collection was not only an illustration of technological development but also the success it brought to Buffalo and other once-prosperous and bustling cities.  Some companies, such as Pierce-Arrow, went on to become celebrated automobile makers.  The growth of bicycle manufacturing marked an important period in industrialization in the United States.  It not only called for advanced technologies (ball bearings, gear systems, assembly line production and so forth) but also begat consumer marketing and organized lobbying.

Having visited the Smithsonian Institution often during my posting in Washington, I was disappointed by the lack of attention paid to this once-important artifact of American innovation and industry.  It is unfortunate that no effort was made by New York State or federal authorities to use some imagination and take over the collection.  Given the popularity of cycling and the fondness that people have for the machines a properly organized and promoted museum would have been a hit.  With the prices being realized at the auction, it is unlikely that a collection as comprehensive as the one in Orchard Park could be assembled again.

The second-highest price paid at the auction in December was for a wood-framed lady's safety bicycle.  I recall seeing this bicycle on my visit and finding it charming and clearly the bidder did as well since the estimated price was $2300-2600 and it went for $12,500!  Hickory actually has benefits as a frame material and wood is seeing something of a niche revival, with frames from bamboo being prominent but also from hardwood.

c. 1898 Old Hickory wood-framed lady's safety bicycle with pneumatic tires (Photo: Copake Auction Inc.)
The second sale will still have lots of great stuff so perhaps my dream of getting a German beer stein with a cycling motif might yet come to pass!


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