A Bookseller's Dream, A Book Seller's Nightmare
One piece stands out as perhaps being the most illustrative of the issue. This was a Macklin Bible, from 1800. These usually run six or seven volumes and might be expected to bring £1,000-£2,000. However, this was a very special set. It had been painstakingly built up over many years by the Rev. Franke Parker. When he donated it to the library in the 1880s, it had grown to some 63 folio volumes, taking up 20 feet of shelf space. This was a grangerized Bible, that is to say, one in which Rev. Parker and his predecessors had taken some 9,000-plus illustrations from other books and resources and added them to his Bible. The Bible was rebound to accommodate all of this extra material, as if it were a natural part. It is easy to see why a space-starved working library would want to be rid of a single unused book taking up 20 feet of shelf space. However, a book filled with over 9,000 prints and drawings, all of which must be well over a century old, and some of which were several centuries old, is likely to have some very interesting pieces. When it was taken to Dominic Winter a short time later, it reportedly brought in several serious potential bidders for a viewing, one all the way from Italy. When the hammer went down, the bids had flown way past the estimate of £7,000-£10,000. The final bid was for £47,000, or 30% more than Thornton had paid for the entire library (£55,225 including the auctioneer's commission). We have not been able to confirm this, but it has been reported that the anonymous British phone bidder who won removed perhaps a couple hundred items from the binding and resold the remainder to an American bidder.
As it turned out, this was not the only gem in the Phillpotts library. Several other books also sold for more than Thornton had paid for the whole, including a 1470 Flavius Josephus for £78,000 (more than double the entire library's cost). All told, the auctions have taken in around £500,000 ($1,000,000). That is just what has been auctioned. It is not known whether or how many items from the library Thornton sold privately.
So who has done wrong here? Clearly the library, at the very least, was negligent. They obviously had no idea what the material was worth, but considering its age, and the offer for £36,000, you would think someone would have concluded a bit more investigation was required. The ABA booksellers were ignored. No one contacted an auction house, a most logical step, as they would have no reason to lowball an estimate. Of course, an appraisal by anyone independent, that is, someone not also interested in buying the books, was called for with so many very old books that were obviously worth more than pocket change. There sure seems to be a gross abandonment of fiduciary responsibility here by people more concerned with eliminating a space problem than in being certain to do the best possible for their institution. Foolish and lazy invites disaster, and now, public humiliation. It is hard to say this is undeserved.
What about Thornton? Has he done anything wrong? First, it is not known whether he had an inkling as to what the real value of this library was. Only he knows for sure. He is reported to have said it was dark in the library so examining the books carefully was difficult. Maybe. Still, it took him two years to come back and raise his offer from £35,000 to £36,000, not exactly what you would expect of someone who saw a chance to make a killing. And what if he did know? What are his obligations, if any? That's the age-old ethical question no one who has ever found a bargain in a garage sale, on eBay, or a library sale particularly likes to consider.