Monday, September 10, 2007

Church Undersells Book Collection

In a classic case of "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," an English diocese is regretting the 2006 sale of its collection of pre-1800 books and manuscripts for £36,000, since auction sales alone have brought the purchasing dealer up to £500,000, The Times reports. The diocese of Truro decided in 2004 to sell off its holdings, solicited a few bids, and eventually accepted that of John Thornton, who put some of the items up for auction and made a hefty profit at it. Thornton "has now closed his shop in Chelsea, West London, and has told The Times that he is planning to retire to the country."

Diocese spokesman Jeremy Dowling told the paper "Those on the management committee had no idea of the value of the material they were dealing with. The decision was made in principle that the pre-1800 collection be disposed of simply because in the past ten years no one had inquired about any book in it at all. Therefore, the library management committee felt that the space was being taken up in a way that was not productive. What Mr Thornton bought, he bought in good faith. The difficulty arises as to whether or not the trustees were sufficiently aware of what was going on."

One wonders how exactly the collection was catalogued so that people knew the books were even there to be inquired about.

I've written about one of the books in question before: an extra-illustrated Macklin Bible sold in December by Dominic Winter for £47,000 (purely for the Old Master prints within, which the buyer then removed for further - more lucrative, if less ethically kosher - sale). Yes, you read that right - a single book from the collection sold for £11,000 more than the dealer paid for the whole lot, as the report notes.

Auctioneers and rare book dealers agreed that the diocese ought to have shopped around. Dominic Winter told the paper "The fault, if there is a fault, lies with the people looking after the library because they did not cast around. We do not think that they went to any auctioneers in the first place or get any more quotes for the job." Alan Shelley, president of the ABA, said "No one knows what happened down in Truro. Clearly, some great error has been made somewhere along the way, at what stage and by whom I do not know."

For his part, Thornton told The Times "I was invited to make an offer to clear the books and two years later I took them away. It was difficult to give an accurate evaluation of the collection when we were asked to do so in 2004 because of the dimly lit and confined conditions in which they were held."

I'd like to think that this case would make institutions like the diocese think more carefully about decisions taken to deaccession important collections like this, but of course in these days of budget-crunches it probably won't. To a larger point, if the collection was gotten rid of purely for space management reasons, the diocese ought to have considered donating it to a repository where it could have been kept intact, rather than having it sold off piecemeal. Unfortunately, that's all water under the bridge.