May 2013 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Historic Collection of Rare Books Slated for Auction Despite Criticisms

Almost a year ago, scholars at Canterbury Cathedral and the University of Kent became alarmed when the possibility arose that a major collection of early printed books and manuscripts might be broken up and sold to the highest bidder. The Mendham collection--named for its founder, Anglican vicar Joseph Mendham--was donated to The Law Society of England and Wales in the 1860s. Since 1984, the collection has been on deposit at Canterbury Cathedral Library under a loan agreement between the Cathedral, the University of Kent, and the Society. (That agreement is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2013.)

Lot15.jpgBut in July of last year, the Law Society plucked three hundred of the most valuable books from the collection and consigned them to Sotheby's. An uproar ensued, and a petition was circulated to save the historic library from an uncertain fate. Negotiations began, and there was hope that the scholars and the solicitors might reach an agreement. According to Dr. Clive Field, president of the Religious Archives Group, the Law Society invited bids to purchase the entire collection from a number of UK universities. With no deal in sight, "Highlights of the Mendham Collection"--142 lots of bibles, prayer books, and other rare theological works--is now officially on the Sotheby's calendar for June 5. The six-volume polyglot bible pictured here at left is estimated to be one of the top lots at £70,000-100,000 ($105,000-150,000).

In anticipation of the auction, a letter of support for keeping the collection intact was sent to the Times of London on May 11. Dr. Clive Field; Diarmaid Maccullouch, professor of the history of the church, Oxford; and Roly Keating, chief executive, British Library, wrote as a group describing their concern. "Many items will doubtless be lost to the nation as a result," they wrote. They urged the Law Society to explore "alternative options to the Sotheby's auction, with the attendant damage to scholarship and national heritage."

Some solicitors have also shown support for the effort to save the collection from dissemination. In a May 14 letter to the Times of London, Ian Stevens, director of policy for the Solicitors Regulation Authority, 2007-2010, wrote, "As a history graduate, solicitor and former employee of the Law Society of England and Wales, I am dismayed by the society's proposal to break up and dispose of the Mendham Collection ... The donor's intention was to find a secure home for the collection, not to provide the profession with a disposable asset." Two other UK solicitors followed up with a letter in the Times on May 15 urging other solicitors to "contact the Law Society, as we have done, to ask that the sale be delayed. Short-term financial considerations cannot be a justification for the break-up of a historical collection."

Dr. Alixe Bovey, director of the University of Kent's Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, would very much like to see the collection preserved. In an email last week she wrote, "We're still making efforts to stop the break up of the collection but time is running out."

The Law Society, for its part, has refused to comment. A May 16 email from Fine Books went unanswered by the Society's press office.

Image via Sotheby'