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>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>
  • <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>South Polar Times.</i> 1st edition, limited issue. from the library of Michael Barne. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. $30,000 to $50,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> After Fra Egnazio Danti. <i>L'Ultime Parti not:e nel Indie Occid:ntli" [The last known parts of the Western Indies].</i> Painted Map of California, Western Mexico, and Japan. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Ptolemaeus, Claudius. <i>Geographie opus nouissima...</i> 1513. The most important edition of Ptolemy, containing the Admiral's Map. $250,000 to $350,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> De Arellano, Don Alonso. Manuscript, his <i>"Relación mui singular y circunstanciada... Capitán del Patax San Lucas,"</i> manuscript copy from the Sir Thomas Phillips collection. $50,000 to $80,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Purchas, Samuel. <i>Purchas his Pilgrimes.</i> First edition. With John Simth's engraved map of Virginia. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. $2,000 to $3,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Franklin H. Brown, <i>State Sovereignty, National Union,</i> Chicago, 1860. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Thomas Paine, <i>The American Crisis,</i> Fishkill, NY, December 1776. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b><br>The Aitken Bible, Philadelphia, 1781. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francisco Loubayssin de Lamarca, probable first edition of the first novel set in the Spanish New World, Paris, 1617. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Juan de la Anunciación, <i>Sermonario en lengua mexicana,</i> first edition, first book of sermons in Nahuatl, Mexico, 1577. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Maturino Gilberti, <i>Thesoro spiritual en lengua de Mechuacá,</i> first edition, Mexico, 1558. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Commission of William O. Stoddard as secretary to the president, signed by Lincoln, Washington, 1861. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> <i>Clay and Frelinghuysen,</i> flag banner, circa 1844. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Daguerreotype of a man believed to be Frederick Granger Williams Smith, son of Joseph Smith, circa late 1850s. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> John C. Wolfe, <i>Portrait of Abraham Lincoln,</i> oil on board in period wooden frame, circa 1860s. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francis W. Winton, manuscript on pow-wows with indigenous Canadians, 1881. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Family letters from two young daguerreotype artists, 1826-79. $10,000 to $15,000.

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