Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Selling off Rare Books to Pay the Bills?

There are a whole bunch of big biblio-stories all hitting the news at the same time. The first is a huge scandal brewing out at the University of San Francisco, where the student newspaper reported on 30 April that university administrators were "sifting through a range of university assets and compiling a list of items that may be expendable in an economic emergency." The 'assets' on that list supposedly included rare books from the university's Gleeson Library, and possibly artwork from USF's collections.

Word out today, via Terry Belanger on Ex-Libris (I'll link as soon as it's up in the list archives [update: here's the whole thing]), is that contrary to the university president's statements to the student newspaper ("We are not selling anything right now"), sales have in fact already begun. President Rev. Stephen Privett "recently stripped from the Timken-Zinkann Collection, an early founding core collection of the Library, a series of original woodcuts and engravings - mostly iconic images of Catholic and Christian tradition - by leading Renaissance artist and author, Albrecht Dürer, in effect destroying the integrity of the collection. Together with an early, original Rembrandt etching, the Dürer prints were anonymously offered for sale at auction Tuesday morning, 11 May, at Bonhams, despite a valiant last-minute effort on the part of faculty and library supporters to persuade Privett to suspend the sale."

The sales results from that auction are here, and show a Dürer "St. Jerome in his Study" (an absolutely wonderful piece of artwork) selling for just over $67,000. Terry's correspondent writes "In a down market, only the Rembrandt and a few of the Dürers sold." Specifically of the St. Jerome print: "St. Jerome is the patron saint of librarians whose feast day is September 30th. Traditionally, every September his engraving was exhibited in the Gleeson Library to bring blessings and protection to the Library itself, to the librarians who selflessly work there, and to all those who research and patronize it. Whose or what image will now bless and protect USF's Gleeson Library? Perhaps, come next September, some one will hang black mourning cloth where once the image of St. Jerome was displayed."

History professor Martin Claussen is leading the charge against sales from the university's collections, telling the student paper "Selling parts of the library collection in order to pay current costs is like burning the furniture to keep warm." He disagrees with Privett's statements that any proceeds from sales would go to the rare book room: "Selling items in the Rare Book Room to pay for renovations that would keep them safe? That logic sounds odd." Terry's source adds "Once collections are compromised and books, manuscripts, artworks, ephemera and related items have been cannibalized from them, for what pupose will the Rare Book Room be renovated?"

President Privett has reportedly agreed to meet the campus community tomorrow to discuss the situation, so perhaps we will learn more after that meeting. Any way you look at it, this is a nasty business, from the very idea of selling materials to pay the bills (like $67,000 is going to solve all the university's problems) to the secrecy involved here. As I've said many times before, deaccessioning - legitimate deaccessioning - is a necessary part of an institution's business, but doing so in this form and fashion is completely beyond the pale. Not only is selling off prize items from the collections just cutting off your nose to spite your face, it's also an incredibly short-sighted way to deal with financial difficulties.

I'm sure this is not the last we're going to hear of this story. I'll update things whenever I can.

[Update: A response, from Stephen Gertz at Book Patrol. My reaction].