Physics department’s antiques find popular appeal at auction

By Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs

10 July 2002 | Inside the soaring, wood-beamed warehouse of Oakland’s Harvey Clar auction house, there are enough precious items to fill several mansions: grand pianos, art nouveau benches, a Henri II dining suite, Persian rugs, Limoges dinnerware. In their midst huddles an unusual group of objects, looking as ill-at-ease as engineers at a costume ball.

Two weeks ago, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Harvey Clar’s opened the bidding on this handful of antique scientific instruments — and vintage Tinker Toys used for molecular models —excavated from storage by Berkeley’s Department of Physics. The auction house held the sale to gauge interest in a larger auction July 27-28 of 400 additional voltmeters, galvanometers, balances, microscopes, collision-ball apparatuses, demonstration-size slide rules and other items. There appears to be a market; the 15 preview items drew quite a crowd, raising $3,200. The physics department will use the proceeds to buy new equipment for its undergraduate laboratories.

The instruments emerged from decades of seclusion in May, when the department began preparing to move out of LeConte Hall’s older wing for a seismic retrofit. In the department’s temporary home, Hearst Annex, space is at a premium. Thomas Colton, the director of the instructional support group in physics, thus faced the monumental housecleaning challenge of emptying out a 5,000-square-foot attic (with no elevator access), as well as numerous basement storage cupboards.

“We didn’t realize how much there was until we actually got up on ladders and started pulling things out,” Colton says. “We thought we would fill up one lab room, and we did, but we weren’t even a quarter of the way finished.”

Jane Alexiadis, the Harvey Clar appraiser handling the sale for physics, believes that the late July auction will be a smash — as successful as a popular antique pharmacy equipment sale the shop held last summer. The public is interested in the instruments for their historical value, she said, and for their “beauty as sculpture, as well as functional, useful objects.”


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