Institution Reverses Plan to Sell $13 Million Book Collection

- by Michael Stillman


In these tough economic times, numerous institutions – libraries, colleges, museums and such – have determined one way of relieving the burden is to sell their book collection. These attempted sales often raise opposition within and without their walls, but not so often are they successful. Such was the case a few months ago when Mills College of Oakland, California, sold its spectacular copy of Shakespeare's First Folio for almost $10 million. Many were upset by the decision to sell the valuable gift by an alumnus in 1977 to pay current debts, but ultimately, the administration felt its immediate financial needs were the greater concern and sold it anyway. For those who hate such stories, this one will be a welcome respite. Britain's Royal College of Physicians has cancelled the proposed sale of its book collection.


The Royal College of Physicians, founded in 1518, had received an exceptional collection of books in 1680 from the Marquess of Dorchester. It was intended to reestablish the college's library after the Great London Fire decimated it. Facing a shortfall of around $4 million, the Royal College pursued the idea of selling what it called its “non-medical assets,” items not essential to their primary role of improving the quality of medical care in the U.K. and around the world.


This quickly led to large protests, particularly among people associated with the college. The brush-back was clearly recognized by the Board of Trustees. They responded to the complaints with a statement saying, “Contrary to recent reports in the media, no decisions have been made yet on whether to sell any of our books or manuscripts.” Nonetheless, they explained the financial difficulties that led them to consider the sale. Somewhere along the way, they obtained an estimate of the value of the collection of $13 million and it was reported that they had been talking to auctioneer Bonham's. This was not just an off-the-wall idea but a plan under serious consideration.


In the end, voices for preservation won the day. Last month, the Board of Trustees announced there would be no sale. In their statement, the trustees reiterated that they have the authority to make this sale, but had decided against it. However, that does not mean that a sale of the books is now permanently off the table. As they described their decision, the “trustees have agreed to delay such a sale for the immediate future.” “Delay” is not the same as “reject.” There will be no such sale in the “immediate” future, but this is no guarantee it will not happen in the less-than immediate future. How long it will be before enough time elapses to no longer be the “immediate” future is anyone's guess.


Before opponents of the sale get too comfortable with the decision, this statement may be particularly concerning. Not only is it just a delay, one might interpret their saying it was a delay of a sale, rather than a delay of a decision, as implying a sale will eventually come. That may be reading too much into the wording, but this clearly is not a rejection of the idea. Opponents may have to engage in this battle again, and if the trustees bring it up once more after the level of opposition this time, it may mean that a final decision has been made, not just considered.