Published: June 12, 2007
You might say she had a bee in her bonnet.
When Connecticut State Representative Julia B. Wasserman, R-106th District, introduced legislation to exempt antiques dealers who were running afoul of laws banning the purchase, sale or disposal of items containing mercury †notably antique barometers †she was acting on behalf of a concerned constituent †Antiques and The Arts Weekly, widely known in the antiques trade as The Bee.
House Bill 6567, An Act Concerning An Exemption For Antiques, was recently passed by Connecticut’s general assembly after having been unanimously okayed by the environment and public health committees, and following what Wasserman said had been a “long tortuous path.” It is due to go into effect on October 1, 2007.
Antiques and The Arts Weekly first learned of the problem about a year ago when Cushing, Maine-based antique barometer dealer Neville Lewis related that he was suddenly being banned from selling the rare devices. On July 1, 2006, Lewis’s state joined a growing roster of states that outlawed the sale of mercury-containing devices, inadvertently catching in their broad net antique mercury barometers.
Lewis, who has participated in major New England antiques shows, such as the ones in Wilton and Hartford, Conn., and other dealers of antique devices that contained mercury were suddenly being frozen out of key markets.
It is not surprising that state and federal legislation heavily regulates the sale and transfer of products containing mercury, as the element is a well-acknowledged “bad actor.” Used extensively in thermometers, barometers and other scientific equipment in the past, elemental mercury’s extreme toxicity has resulted in it largely being phased out in favor of alcohol-filled or digital devices.
But an antique barometer is not something to be upgraded. Replacing the mercury with another substance would kill the device’s value. “A collector wouldn’t want it, and dealers wouldn’t touch it. It wouldn’t be right,” said Lewis as he testified before Maine’s Natural Resources Committee back in March. In April, Maine’s legislature unanimously approved a bill to allow the sale of antique barometers in the state, and the law is due to become effective later this summer.
In Connecticut, the exemption championed by Wasserman essentially creates a requirement for a paper trail to be generated whenever such items are bought and sold. It addresses a “Catch 22” situation inherent in the original legislation in that products manufactured prior to 2004 were exempt from state law regarding their sale or disposal, but needed documentation of their date of manufacture. This caused a big headache for antiques dealers because many of the rare items that they buy, refurbish or sell, have no such documentation and companies that produced them are often no longer in business.
HB 6567 allows antiques dealers to sell mercury-containing items such as barometers as long as “the antiques dealer certifies in writing, that, to the best of their knowledge, the products were made before January 1, 2004.” It also requires the product owners to retain the written certification.
“People who wish to sell or even throw away certain antiques have run afoul of the law,” said Representative Wasserman. “This bill provides a practical solution that keeps the safeguards to our environment in place” She added, “I would advise the dealers to be sure to keep a copy of the written certification.”
Wasserman credited colleagues Representative Bob Godfrey and Senator John McKinney for helping to shepherd the bill through the respective houses.
For its part, The Bee Publishing Company said that it was pleased that the storm over the trade in antique barometers had passed. “While Antiques and The Arts Weekly certainly understood Connecticut’s position and the environmental importance of the legislation that was passed outlawing the sale of items that contained mercury, we felt that the law unintentionally shackled antiques dealers that were engaged in sales of antique scientific instruments, including barometers,” said the publication’s associate editor David S. Smith.
“As a result, we approached our state representative, Julia Wasserman, and aided her in crafting a bill that would exempt antique measuring devices from the legislation,” Smith continued. “The passage of this new bill not only allows dealers and collectors to legally possess and sell barometers and other scientific measuring devices, but equally important, it also ensures that these historically important items do not need to be altered and can remain in their original state of preservation.”
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