Fire Sale of Precious Books

Today, we have redux of another kind, and not one that is very pleasant to report. In February 2004, I wrote an OpEd piece for the Boston Globe that told how a rare botanical book from the early eighteenth century sold at a Christie's auction fourteen months earlier by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society had been stripped to the bare bones of its 248 exquisite engravings, and sold on the Internet as trendy wall decorations by rapacious European dealers. (The piece was included in Editions & Impressions, recently published by Fine Books Press).

What made this disclosure especially egregious was that the book --known as the Nurnbergische hesperides, and one of just eight held institutionally worldwide--was one of more than 2,000 culled from the collection of the once-proud Boston organization, and sold off to pay for such necessities as a new roof for the society's building and to help underwrite its annual flower show. All told, the MHS raised more than $5 million from the fire sale of a library once regarded as one of the strongest of its kind in North America.

As shameless as this desecration was--the MassHort director at the time rationalized that many of the books "hadn't been used in decades"--there were tepid assurances that what remained, at least, would be safeguarded for future users. Well, so much for half-hearted promises, as the results of a sale this week of fine books and manuscripts at Sotheby's in New York make so painfully clear.

Not content, apparently, to keep at least a couple of the treasures that remained from a tradition that goes back to 1829, MassHort found another 27 high-end items on its shelves to put on the block--all of them beautifully illustrated, and all of them prime targets for the kind of cultural cannibalism that took place with the Nurnbergische hesperides--were offered up on Dec. 11, and projected to bring in $700,000 to $1 million, almost a third of the $3.42 million realized in the sale of 247 lots.

Top grossers among MassHort books included: $98,500 for lot 222, Hortus Sanitatis (Mainz, 1491); $86,500 for lot 219, a work known as the Grete Herbal (London, 1526); $22,500 for lot 226, Edwin Hale Lincoln's Orchids of the North Eastern United States (Pittsfield, MA. 1931), and $15,000 for lot 229, a two-volume collection of lithographs of the garden of Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pückler-Muskau (Stuttgart, 1834.) What was expected to be highest-ticked MHS item of the sale--a seven volume set of stipple-engraved plates by Henri-Louis Duhamel Du Monceau depicting various fruits (Paris, 1807-1835) valued at $80,000 to $100,000--failed to reach its reserve, and was "bought in," as the saying goes, and will undoubtedly go on the block in another sale, or be sold privately.

"It's certainly one of the best groups of illustrated botanical books we've auctioned in several decades," Selby Kiffer, a senior vice president in the books and manuscript department at Sotheby's in New York, told the Boston Globe. "It includes masterworks, as well as some lesser known but unique books."

Betsy Ridge Madsen, president of the MassHort board of trustees, said she was saddened by the decision to put on yet another garage sale of irreplaceable treasures, "but we see this as the only way to go forward to clean up our debt." Like her predecessor four years ago, she said the society will maintain the five hundred rare books that still remain in the collection, along with 12,000 other volumes. But she added this caveat: "We did a member survey, in which we asked members what was most meaningful about their membership, and the rare books were their lowest priority."

Which is short-hand for fasten your seat belts. The founders and earliest benefactors of this venerable institution--some of the giants of nineteenth-century Boston society--must be turning over in their graves. The Athens of America, indeed.