Red Cross sells pieces of history to cut deficit

AP News
Posted: Nov 16, 2009 3:43 PM

Rose Percy has a long history with the American Red Cross. Complete with an extensive wardrobe and her own Tiffany jewelry, this 23-inch wax doll was first sold for $1,200 back in 1864 to benefit the U.S. Sanitary Commission _ the precursor to one of best-known U.S. charities.

Now, Rose Percy, is on the auction block again.

On Tuesday, Percy will be sold in one of the first rounds of an extensive sale of treasures the American Red Cross has amassed over the decades. The current bid online: $5,000. The Red Cross also is selling a rare four-faced Cartier clock lamp, nurse uniforms from World War I and what could be the last Civil War-era flag of the forerunner U.S. Sanitary Commission.

"There's an opportunity for people to purchase a part of the Red Cross history and at the same time contribute to our humanitarian mission," said Red Cross spokesman Roger Lowe. At a time when many companies are cutting back on such vast archival collections, 128-year-old charity, he said, is asking itself, "Do I really need all of this?"

For the past two years, the charity whose core mission is disaster relief has been working feverishly to erase a $209 million operating deficit _ a shortfall that now stands at $33.5 million. The national headquarters laid off a third of its 3,000 employees last year and made a rare appeal to Congress for help that produced a one-time, $100-million infusion. But the cost-cutting isn't over.

What once was a collection of more than 135,000 objects, images, books and reels of film kept in a Lorton, Va., warehouse outside Washington is being drastically scaled back. The warehouse will be closed next year to save $3 million annually.

Many items predate the time in 1881 when Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in Washington. Some have been sent to the National Archives under a long-standing partnership, the most historically significant art and objects will be kept at the Washington headquarters and others will be auctioned in the largest sale in years, archivist Susan Watson said.

The charity will honor donor intent and keep its best and most historically significant art and objects, Lowe said. That will include original paintings by Norman Rockwell, Howard Chandler Christy and African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, among others. Rockwell was commissioned to do paintings for the Red Cross as the basis of posters asking people to join or donate.

In the case of the uniform collection, there was room to pare back, Watson said. Some examples of nurse and officer uniforms _ ranging from World War I to those worn by "doughnut dollies" in Vietnam _ were kept. Some were sent to the National Archives.

"But even with all of that, there were still many, many duplicates," she said.

The online auctions began this month through Heritage Auction Galleries and will continue through February.

Gone is a French bleu compote presented to the American Red Cross in 1937 by Albert Lebrun, then president of France. It sold last week for $2,031.50 at the Dallas-based auction house. Still to go are assorted Christmas seals and international stamps, as well as about 75 original Red Cross illustrations created by artists including Haddon Sundblom, known for his pictures of Santa drinking a Coke.

One document to be sold was responsible for saving a woman's life during the Holocaust. It was issued by the Swedish Red Cross in 1944 under Raoul Wallenberg in Hungary to provide safe passage for an Austrian Jewish chemist who was seeking refuge from the Nazis.

Jared Green, vice president of Heritage Auction Galleries, said they conservatively estimate the sale will bring in about $200,000.

For the Red Cross "it doesn't make sense to them to hold onto these pieces indefinitely," he said. "What's more important is at the end of the year, it's helping as many people as it can."


On the Net:

Heritage Auction Galleries:

American Red Cross: