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Polaroid Collections: Another Ponzi Fatality?

Predictably, the economic downturn has begun to have an impact on photography. Gallery sales have slumped, auction prices are down. Some galleries and other venues have closed their doors. Schools, museums, and similar institutions have scaled back their lecture series and artist/scholar-in-residence programs. Publishers are more cautious about undertaking new titles. Funding sources have dried up. And so forth. None of this is surprising — though, with photography on a roll culturally and financially for a decade, few had readied themselves for this moment.

The Polaroid Book, Taschen, 2005

The Polaroid Book, Taschen, 2005

Certainly no one expected any corner of the photo world to become entangled in the elaborate, byzantine schemes that have made headline news recently and brought down investment scammers such as the visibly non-archival Bernie Madoff, who, like the arch-villain The Penguin in the “Batman” saga, just got sent off to permanent cold storage. But that’s exactly what’s happened to the Polaroid Collection, which now faces a distinctly uncertain fate. (Subscriber Barbara Alper asked me to open a discussion of this situation. She herself has work in the collection, hence her particular interest.)

Assembled over decades by Polaroid founder Edwin H. Land and designated in-house curators, the collection includes some 16,000 one-of-a-kind images made on assorted Polaroid materials by everyone from Ansel Adams (who, with Land, inaugurated the collection, which holds some 600 works of his) to Andy Warhol. David Hockney, Helmut Newton, Jeanloup Sieff, and Robert Rauschenberg are just a few of the hundreds of names represented. In addition to the images, the collection includes correspondence from the artists and other documentation of their involvement with Polaroid. You’ll find Polaroid’s list of the photographers included in the collection included in this court document.

In most cases the images entered the collection as part of a barter arrangement with their makers, who received in return free film and cameras (or, in the case of the Polaroid 20×24″ camera and an even larger 40×80″ model, access to the camera in the studio and technical assistance in making images with it). Few if any of the images were actually purchased by the corporation, virtually none at market value. Numerous books and exhibitions have drawn on the collection over the years.

Tom Petters mug shot, October 2008

Tom Petters mug shot, October 2008

Valued at an estimated $7-11 million, it’s the largest single accumulation of Polaroid images in existence, and the most comprehensive in terms of the number and diversity of picture-makers represented. Now it’s caught up in the international fiscal crisis — because Polaroid’s assets were purchased in 2004 by alleged Minnesota Ponzi schemer Tom Petters, presently in jail and awaiting trial on these charges in September 2009. Under these circumstances, title to ownership of the works isn’t clear; it seems likely the Petters fraud case will drag on for years, leaving the collection in limbo until it concludes.

Petters’s scam totaled a mere $3.5 billion, small potatoes when measured on the now-standard Madoff Scale. However, as part of it Petters International bought Polaroid for $426 million, then in desperation sold it for $85.9 million in a St. Paul auction in April of this year — with the new owners acquiring all assets except the photo collection, which presumably still belongs to Petters. Or, more precisely, to his investors/creditors, as the court will determine. (For an excellent report on the situation, see Jennifer Bjorhus’s April 24, 2009 account for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune“Polaroid art has price but no place.” This is the only account of the collection’s status I’ve found online.)

Petters moved the company to Minnetonka, MN, hence the Twin Cities focus of this narrative. The collection itself remains mostly housed in an office building in Somerville, Mass., just across the Charles River from Boston, Polaroid Corp.’s original home. According to Bjorhus’s account, “Thousands of pieces are currently on loan to the Musée de L’Elysée,” a prestigious European photo museum located in Lausanne, Switzerland.

SX-70 Art, Lustrum Press, 1979

SX-70 Art, Lustrum Press, 1979

In the worst-case scenario, a unique collection that reflects the ways in which picture-makers experimented for six decades with a distinctive cluster of tools, materials, and processes produced by a single company would get broken up and dispersed among creditors or else go on the auction block item by item. That would be a great loss to scholarship. I hope a way will emerge to avoid that outcome and keep this obviously integral collection intact, properly conserved, and housed within a repository that can make it available to researchers and to the public at large. I can think of only a few institutions in the U.S. with the physical space and archiving expertise required to absorb a trove this size: the J. Paul Getty Museum in Brentwood, CA; the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Library of Congress, also in DC; the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin; and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ. I’d put the Getty and the NGA at the top of the list.

Public discussion of the uniqueness and importance of the Polaroid Collection, and public expression of concern regarding its future, can only help the Minnesota courts in weighing the options for disposition of this tangible asset. Possibly a petition’s in order; if so, I can host it here. I’d like to hear from readers of this blog as to what they’d recommend in this situation. I’d especially welcome instructive comments from anyone who has helped wage a public campaign in any way analogous to what preservation of the Polaroid Collection intact and its placement in an appropriate environment would involve.

KATALOG 10.2 (Denmark), cover

KATALOG 10.2 (Denmark), cover

It’s not clear from the Bjorhus story whether the imperiled works represent just the Polaroid U.S.A. collection or also include what Polaroid calls its International collection. (Originally known as the “Europa” collection, comprising works primarily by European picture-makers such as Josef Sudek and David Bailey, this was curated separately, and stored in western Europe.) Polaroid’s own website indicates that the two collections total 22,000 pieces, which leaves 6,000 of them unaccounted for in the Petters lot.

I’ve uploaded a 1998 article I published originally in the Danish journal Katalog“Polaroid: What Price Largesse?” This essay reconsiders a 1980 essay of mine; in both I ponder the Polaroid Corporation’s patronage — its effect on the field and on the work produced under such sponsorship. The original 1980 essay, commissioned by the editor of Polaroid’s in-house magazine, Close-Up, raised some pointed questions about the influence of that corporate support on the art that resulted. To their credit, all involved at Polaroid approved this public challenge — admirable then, and memorable (at least to me) still.

For an index of links to all posts related to this story, click here.

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10 comments to Polaroid Collections: Another Ponzi Fatality?

  • Plans were in place to have the collection go to an institution, but Petter’s arrest froze that. It is very much in doubt now, but solutions are being sought. The process is ongoing, so comments ultimately have to wait.

    As an artist who is part of the collection and someone who helped create some of the major contemporary pieces in it, I feel very strongly that it should end up in a credible institution. We can only hope that it can stay intact but that seems unlikely given the situation with the creditors. They don’t care about art, they just want as much of their money back as possible.

  • Sharon Smith

    Hi Allan,
    I appreciate your bringing this up. The pictures in this collection represent something unique in the history of photography, and it’s disheartening to consider that it might just disappear along with the technology that produced it.

    I remember your 1980 essay and appreciate your thoughtful consideration of the issues involved in corporate sponsorship. You might be interested in this online article I wrote last year for Print Magazine on the demise of Polaroid film:

  • Thanks for adding this footnote, John. Please know that, if it will help any, I’ll gladly set up a petition here at PI to encourage whatever powers that be to look for a solution that would maintain the integrity of the collection, or at least disperse it in coherent chunks.

    I realize that may not prove feasible from the standpoints of the courts and the creditors, so it all may get sold piecemeal. What a shame. Perhaps at least any documentation of the collection (in image form) and the correspondence archives, etc., could end up accessible to researchers somewhere.

    And there are a few archives — the Getty, for one — that could possibly afford to buy the whole shebang.

    Meanwhile, I’m still looking to resolve the discrepancy between the number of images in the collections given at Polaroid’s website (22,000) and the number given in the Mpls Star-Trib story (16,000). That’s a difference of more than 25 percent of the larger total. Where are those? Stay tuned . . .

  • As someone who has worked with these materials over the years I am keenly aware of their sensitivity to atmospheric conditions, particularly humidity. Do either of you know if the collection is currently stored properly in a climate-controlled environment? It would be a terrible loss if, after years of sitting in storage, it was found to be a lump of stuck-together Polaroids. From personal experience, once the surface of the ER film is compromised it is virtually impossible to repair.

    • It’s my understanding (from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune news story) that the collection — or at least the 16,000 prints of the total 22,000 that Petters International now owns — remains where it always was: in Boston, in the same excellent storage situation that Polaroid originally set up for it.

      According to the same story, several thousand of the works in question are on extended loan to the Musée de L’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is under the directorship of William Ewing, formerly of the ICP in New York.

      So I think we can consider the collection physically safe for the present. I have several probes out in hopes of obtaining additional information on this situation. I’ll add your question regarding storage conditions and supervision to my own about the 6,000 prints not accounted for in the news story.

      I invite anyone with further information on this situation to comment here and add to the thread.

      • Thanks, Allan. Great piece. It made me fondly recall the “old” Polaroid. Smart people worked there; they added a nice buzz to the party, and actually provided tangible support as well.

        • I am in the Polaroid collection and they actually bought the photographs to boot!! I have wondered for years what had happened to those image and that collection. Something needs to be done — if possible. Let me know if I can help in any way.

  • Thomas Harrop

    I wonder if it might be possible for someone to file an amicus brief with the bankruptcy and criminal court (or whoever is dealing with the whole situation) to explain that the collection is of greater value as a collection than as individual pieces.

    I hope it can be preserved as a body of work. It would be difficult to assess the damage to the history of the art of photography if all of this work ends up in a sort of diaspora.

    • If the court determines that this collection as an asset belongs to the creditors of Petters International, I assume that whoever takes charge of disposing of that asset on behalf of the creditors would see it as advantageous to sell it as a single lot to the highest bidder. You can’t just dump 16,000 unique prints on the auction market without depressing the market. And you can’t put all of them up for bid at a single auction. So you’d have to do multiple auctions, spread over years — then deal with the cumulative sales figures, the buy-ins, the auction-house percentages, heaps and heaps of accounting and tax reports, incremental distribution of net proceeds to creditors . . .

      Sounds like a nightmare to me. So much easier to find one buyer, divvy up the proceeds among the creditors, and conclude that situation. I’m guessing that’s how it’ll go (and you heard it here first).

      Which doesn’t mean that it’s a bad idea to let the court know that the photo/art community and the visual-culture research community have a deep interest is seeing that this collection as a resource and archive remains relatively integral and, at worst, gets apportioned among a small group of responsible and appropriate institutions. Quite the contrary, and I appreciate Thom Harrop’s suggestion. How we do that lies outside my skill set right now. Suggestions welcome, volunteers too.

  • A. D. Coleman

    Closer reading of the info on the Polaroid Collections posted at the company website yields the following passage: “Since the early years of Polaroid film testing in the late 1940s, artists have been invited to experiment with Polaroid film materials, and selected work has been accessioned into the permanent archives of the Polaroid Collection, now housed in Waltham, Massachusetts, La Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris and Le Musée de L’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland.” [Note: This page,, has since been been removed from the Polaroid website, as I discovered on 8/19/09.]

    So two European institutions house chunks of the collections. The website of the Musée de L’Elysée in Lausanne lists the “Collection Polaroid Internationale” among its holdings, indicated as containing 4577 prints. The website of La Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP for short) indicates that “The Polaroid Company of Boston has placed 1500 original Polaroid prints in trust of the centre.” This explains the discrepancy between the 22,000-print total for the collections indicated by Polaroid and the 16,000 prints now owned by the creditors of Petters International.

    The Polaroid site clarifies further that “The two complementary collections — American and international — together comprise more than 22,000 images by more than 1000 photographers; the collections were integrated in 1990.” Extrapolating from all this, I come to three tentative conclusions:

    1. Each of these two institutions received a representative cross-section of the mix that resulted from the 1990 “integration” of the American and International collections.
    2. If these have indeed been “accessioned into the permanent archives” of those institutions, then more than 25 percent of the total content of the original collections is legally held by them and safe from random dispersal via auction or other sale.
    3. That same 25 percent is in the hands of two highly respected public institutions with a proven track record of conservation savvy, exhibition and publication of their holdings, enabling of scholarly research based on their archives, etc.

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