More than Meets the Eye
By Bruce McKinney
Two sales this year by libraries in the United States illustrate how procedure may influence public response when material is deaccessioned. The two libraries are the Wilmington, Delaware Public Library and the Gleeson Library at the University of San Francisco. The purposes in both cases were the same: to sell material to raise money to invest in their physical plants. For the Wilmington Public Library they hope to pay for a new roof, heating and air conditioning system. In the case of USF it is to pay for rare book library upgrades that their spokesman has described this way:
"The room that currently houses our collection is inadequate: it does not offer proper controls for humidity, temperature, lighting or protection from fire. Expensive upgrades are necessary to ensure our collection's long-term survival."
In both cases, the material sent to auction was donated decades earlier by distinguished donors, Lammot du Pont to Wilmington, Reinhard Timken-Zinkann to the Gleeson. Neither donor restricted deaccession. The University of San Francisco offered some of Mr. Timken-Zinkann's Durer prints at Bonham's & Butterfield's on May 11th, the Wilmington Public Library a complete set of the Curtis Indian Portfolio on October 8th at Christie's in New York.
Here the similarities end.
The Durer prints, although valuable did not do well. The Curtis brought $775,000, a good price in the current environment.
The sale of material from the Gleeson Library was not announced, neither was its provenance included in the lot descriptions. Neither did the material, as is often the case at public auction, identify the seller. As luck would have it though, in the days leading up to the sale, the material's history as part of the Gleeson archives was discovered by members of the Gleeson's Friends of the Library and an extraordinary debate subsequently ensued.
The upshot was bruised feelings all around. The university felt it had the right to dispose but did so in a way that made obvious its embarrassment. The Friends of the Gleeson Library felt betrayed and both past and future donors were left angry and concerned.
The recent sale of the twenty volume set of Curtis by the Wilmington Library was a very different experience.
The Wilmington Delaware Public Library's Board of Overseer's publicly authorized the sale this past spring and then consigned the set to Christie's who issued an announcement on May 5th, fully five months ahead of the bidding. The owner was identified and the sale's purpose explained.