Over the last few months, directors and curators of every major museum and most minor ones, and of historical societies and galleries in Washington and Baltimore, have learned what all the similar institutions in the vicinity of Costa Mesa, Calif., already knew -- that John Hanssen, a Costa Mesa real estate dealer, has boxes and boxes and trunks and trunks of objects connected to his ancestors. And he doesn't know what to do with them.
Hanssen's dilemma points up a problem little known except to heirs and estate executors: Sometimes you can't even give stuff away -- even objects from a founding father during the Constitution's bicentennial commemoration.
Hanssen claims as his grandfather (to the fifth great) Daniel Carroll of Rock Creek, a signer of the Constitution and one of the three commissioners who established the District of Columbia out of portions of Virginia and Maryland. The Carrolls were very important in the early history of the United States in general and Maryland in particular. Daniel's brother, Archbishop John Carroll of Upper Marlboro, founded Georgetown University and was the first bishop of Baltimore. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a first cousin, signed the Declaration of Independence. Hanssen's mother Carroll Ellicott Hanssen was a Washington debutante in the late '20s.
Hanssen wants to give his ancestors' antiques and memorabilia to a museum. But he wants that museum to take the whole kit and caboodle -- from vases to sleigh beds to Carroll portraits -- and promise to display it all, and vow never to sell it.
So far, no museum in California or the Washington area is willing. Most explain they're having a hard enough time finding places to put what they already have.
John Hanssen's problem started about nine years ago, when he packed up the Pasadena, Calif., house of his grandmother Margaret Tyson Ellicott, originally of Baltimore and Washington. He's been unpacking it ever since at his small home in Costa Mesa. "So far I've been through five trunks and 15 packing cases. And there's more to go," he said.
Hanssen says he's found five boxes of oriental carpets, six sleigh beds, seven military commissions, invitations to White House dinners, an 1888 sword of Eugene Ellicott, engravings of portraits of Charles Carroll by Thomas Sully and Daniel Carroll, an 1850 photo album, a set of 1830 china, coin silver, a signed picture of Calvin Coolidge, miniature chests and tables, an old map of Washington and one of Maryland and Virginia.
Probably the most interested party is Barry Kessler, decorative arts curator of Baltimore's City Life Museums, including Carroll Mansion, the winter residence of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. "We could use a great many pieces of furniture and art objects," Kessler said. So far, he's the only area curator to actually go out and look at Hanssen's collection.
In November he wrote Hanssen saying, "Our collections committee met ... to look at some of the photographs I took and discuss the gift offer. We are very excited about the entire collection, but will need some more time to study and compare before we can make decisions about all of what is offered ... the committee accepted the eight prints described on the enclosed list. We are also very interested in the four pieces of miniature furniture and two chests of drawers ..."
That's all very well, from the committee's point of view, but not necessarily Hanssen's. "I don't want to dismember it -- it's like stripping a car and selling off the doors," he says. "This is the bicentennial of the Constitution, and it all ought to be exhibited together."
Other Washington curators are hesitant to say "we'll take it," because so far, according to Larry Baume, Columbia Historical Society (housed in the Christian Heurich mansion) collections curator, "the society doesn't have the money to send me to California. And, I haven't received pictures or an adequate list of what he has. In any case, we couldn't take all of it. We don't have the space for three-dimensional objects."
The Smithsonian, Hanssen's first thought, was even less interested. Keith Melder, political curator at the National Museum of American History, says, "Hanssen doesn't go much into detail as to what he has. But I felt he was sincere and very anxious to accomplish something. I told him that the Maryland Historical Society and Carroll House would be the appropriate places for what he has.
"The trend at American History is away from assembling miscellaneous collections about founding fathers. We are moving into representing different racial and ethnic ordinary peoples of the United States," Melder explains. "Besides, we're undergoing agonizing space restrictions. Right now we're trying to develop guidelines to evaluate objects offered us. We're turning things down right and left as our storage areas overflow."
In the meantime, Hanssen seems to be having a grand time with his patrimony. He's been invited to speak, to play Daniel Carroll riding in a carriage in a parade, to be interviewed in the newspapers, to join historical societies and even to mount some exhibits of the collection in California museums.
He may find it more fun to offer the collection than give it.