A significant, well-used, and publicly supported collection of rare books has been broken up and lost to public view. 300 of the most valuable books in The Mendham Collection, under the custodianship of Canterbury Cathedral and the University of Kent, were sold by Sotheby’s on behalf of the collection’s owners, the Law Society, fetching £1 million.
This Guardian article is a useful summary of the story. I find the sale particularly shocking given that the British Library funded cataloguing on understanding that the collection would not be dispersed and a similar stipulation from the family of Mendham when donating the collection to the Society.
I would never argue that all collections and items must stay where historical chance and whim have landed them: occasionally a good case can be made for a sale which supports the mission of the organisation in a sustainable way. But selling off assets is a one-off temporary solution. It doesn’t address underlying financial issues. The proceeds are spent and gone, the problem that led to the sale recurs in five or ten or twenty years, and meanwhile something unique and significant has been lost forever; in the words of historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, “an act of vandalism”.
This particular sale raised only £1 million – these days not an amount that can solve many problems for an organisation for long.
Nowadays libraries and archives rarely take deposit collections and, when they do, they have firm legal agreements in place to protect their investment of staff, space and funds and ensure collections remain available to the public. However, there are huge numbers of deposit collections out there, taken often with little paperwork and very vulnerable to sale by their owners in times of recession: this sad story is unlikely to be the last of its kind.