Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2015 Issue

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

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

  • Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: U.S. / European Shipping Archive 1800-1814. The Widow Bermingham & Sons Collection. €7,000 to €10,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Bunreacht na hÉireann. Constitution of Ireland. An important copy of the First Printing of De Valera’s new Constitution, approved in 1938. Signed by the Constitution Cabinet. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: A Rare Complete Run of the Cuala Press Broadsides. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Grose (Francis). The Antiquities of Ireland, 2vols. folio London (for S. Hooper) 1791. Magnificent Hand-Coloured Copy - Only 25 Copies. €3,000 to €5,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Cantillon (Richard). Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General, Traduit de l'Anglois, Sm. 8vo London (Fletcher Gyles) 1756. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Gregory, (Lady Augusta). Spreading the News: The Rising of the Moon: The Poorhouse (with Douglas Hyde). Being Vol. IX of the Abbey Theatre Series. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Lavery (Lady Hazel). A moving series of three A.L.S. and a Telegram to Gen. Eoin O'Duffy, July-August 1927, expressing her grief at the death of Kevin O'Higgins. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Dampier (Wm.) Nouveau Voyage Autour du Monde, ou l'on descrit en particulier l'Isthme de l'Amerique…, 2 vols. in one, Amsterdam, 1698. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Howell (James). Instructions for Forreine Travel Shewing by what Cours, and in what Compasse of Time…, London, 1642. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Rowling (J.K.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 8vo, L. (Bloomsbury) 1999, First Edn., First Printing of Deluxe Collectors Edn. Signed. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: James (Wm.) A Full and Correct Account of the Military Occurrences of The Late War Between Great Britain and The United States of America. 2 vols. Lond. 1818. €650 to €900.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: The Laws of the United States, Published by Authority, 3 vols. Philadelphia (Richard Folwell) 1796. €600 to €800.
  • Sotheby’s, July 11: Galileo, Document annotated and signed by Galileo, dated Padua, 1595. £500,000 to £700,000.
  • Bonhams, July 15-25: THE AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION OF ISRAEL WITKOWER. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: GEORGE WASHINGTON SIGNED DISCHARGE. June 9, 1783. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: "Shhhhh!" A DAVID SHANNON ILLUSTRATION FROM DAVID GETS IN TROUBLE. $2,500 - $3,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: PICASSO, PABLO. Le Carmen des Carmen. Paris, 1964. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: RARE AUTOGRAPH OF AMERICAN NAVAL HERO CAPTAIN JAMES MUGFORD. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: KARA WALKER SILHOUETTES FOR TONI MORRISON'S FIVE POEMS. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FIRST APPEARANCE OF PINOCCHIO IN ENGLISH. COLLODI, CARLO.New York, 1892. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: BONAPARTE, JOSEPHINE. Autograph Note (unsigned) in French. $1,000 - $1,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FROST ON MATTHEW ARNOLD.Autograph Letter Signed to Adams, July 27, 1934. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: ELIAS BOUDINOT'S COPY OF BARLOW'S COLUMBIAN EPIC. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A SIGNED HART CRANE BROOKLYN BRIDGE POSTCARD TO EDWARD DAHLBERG. $600 - $800
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A STOCK CERTIFICATE SIGNED BY THE "QUEEN OF WALL STREET," HETTY GREEN. $700 - $900

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions