Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2015 Issue

The Royal Institution is Selling Some of Its Iconic Books: Is this a Bad Thing?

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The Royal Institution. Photo: Royal Institution / T Mitchell.

There is an auction sale taking place this first day of December that is notable for more than the material offered, though it is certainly special. It is its source that is notable, a source of some controversy, though not nearly what it once would have caused. Institutional deaccessioning, once dependably controversial, is less so today. Reality sets in.

 

The Royal Institution, for over 200 years a supporter of scientific research and a repository of its findings, has found itself in some financial difficulties over the past decade. The Institution undertook some significant projects in its Mayfair (London) building during the first decade of this century. It's an enormous building that has been around since the group's founding in 1799, so some upgrades are occasionally necessary. It was an expensive project, leaving the Institution with more debt than it could handle. The result was it had to seriously consider selling its building a few years ago.

 

Fortunately, the Royal Institution's home was saved by an anonymous gift of £4.4 million. However, that still leaves it with £2 million needing to be repaid. The trustees reached the conclusion that the best way to handle the remaining debt load would be to sell some of the books in its collection. Additionally, they will be making some space in their building available for rent to bring in additional income. The trustees selected 85 items from their collection, which they described as "non-core heritage items." The material is estimated to be worth £750,000 (approximately $1,150,000).

 

The highlight is a copy of Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Published in 1543, it has been called "the most famous anatomical work ever published,...and the milestone in all medical history." Vesalius reached his conclusions based on dissecting the human body. That may sound obvious today, but was a radical idea at the time. Galen, then the authority, made his observations by dissecting the bodies of animals. This book is estimated to sell for £140,000 - £220,000 ($214,760 - $337,480). It also explains what is "non-core" for the Royal Institution. It has specific, extensive collections, most notably that of Michael Faraday. Faraday was the 19th century physicist who conducted all sorts of experiments with electricity. He did much of his work at the Royal Institution. Recently, the Institution purchased 30 Faraday letters to add to its collection.

 

Some scientists raised objections. Sir Andre Geim, winner of the Nobel prize for physics, was reported to have said the Royal Institution should reconsider a suggestion made a couple of years earlier to merge with the Royal Society instead. However, for the most part, the reaction seems to have been subdued. A few years ago, the idea of selling off significant books from an institutional collection likely would have generated widespread outrage. Today, there is greater understanding that sometimes practical financial concerns must trump preserving every last item within such a collection.

 

The Royal Institution explained its decision in a statement from its Chairman, saying, "The Ri is committed to preserving and promoting our unique scientific legacy. We believe that taking these necessary steps will provide a strong foundation from which to safeguard our core heritage collection - the Faraday Museum and Archive Collection - and continue our vital work across all of our charitable programmes for the benefit of future generations."

 

From a collecting standpoint, this is not the worst of news. Certainly, there is disappointment in seeing public-spirited if not publicly owned institutions dispersing cultural icons. For so many years, institutions have built up and preserved great collections of historical material. However, in so doing, they have made some of the best items virtually unavailable to private collectors, while driving up the prices of the few examples that are left in circulation. Making the finest material extremely expensive if not unobtainable is not the best way to encourage collecting. Perhaps there are worse things that can happen to historic works than to see a few examples come out of rarely used institutional collections and into the hands of collectors who will truly cherish having them for some brief period of time, and then turning them over to the next generation of collectors to share in that experience.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.
  • <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Collection of 131 Herbert Ponting gelatin silver contact prints of Antartica, £6000-8000
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> One of several lots of Henri Cartier-Bresson gelatin silver prints, £200-300
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Vintage gelatin silver print of Diego Rivera by Leonard McCombe, £300-500
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Albumen print portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron of Sir John Herschel (April, 1867), £30,000-50,000
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Albumen print by Julia Margaret Cameron, Love, 1864 (from the Norman album), £1000-1500
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Albumen print by Lewis Carroll of Twyford School Eleven (Summer Term, 1859), £1000-1500
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Albumen print portrait by Lewis Carroll of Xie Kitchin as 'Dane' (Oxford, 1873), £500-800
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Calotype print (c1845) by Hill & Adamson of Lady Elizabeth (Rigby) Eastlake, £3000-4000
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Group of 12 waxed paper negatives of Scottish scenes by Thomas Keith, mid-1850s, £3000-5000
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> One of 15 lots of Roger Fenton salt prints of his work in the Crimea, mid-1850s, £400-600
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Quarter plate ambrotype (c.1860s) with ethnographic portrait of a woman seated at a table, £400-600
    <b>Dominic Winter, March 9:</b> Rare whole plate thermoplastic union case of the Landing of Columbus (c.1858),part of the John Hannavy collection, £1500-2000
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>

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