IT must be every trustee’s nightmare. You dispose of vanloads of unwanted books for what you think is a realistic £36,000, but then over a period of less than a year you see the pick of them then raise around £500,000 at auction.
That is the scenario facing the trustees of the Bishop Henry Philpotts Library in Truro, who last autumn sold off a large portion of their earlier and other unwanted books to an antiquarian book dealer.
Founded in the 19th century by the then Bishop of Exeter, the Bishop Philpotts Library acquired or was gifted a great many important theological works in its early years.
The problem started as space became an issue and its use by the clergy and students declined. Attempts were made to recreate a working resource for lending and reference and a part-time librarian was appointed to re-catalogue the entire library.
It was decided that a great many of the older books – many of them housed in a separate, locked room – were no longer relevant to the needs of the modern church, the library or its users. With the best intentions and to reduce insurance costs, the decision was taken to invite book dealers to make them an offer.
Over a period of two years several dealers came and looked at the books. Some simply were not interested but three serious bids were eventually forthcoming and, finally, the trustees accepted an offer of £36,000 from John Thornton, a Fulham Road, London dealer with a specialisation in theological books, who removed them by the vanload.
All was well until Mr Thornton began to dispose of some of the works at auction.
Last December, this paper, and indeed the Church Times ran a story about the sale by Dominic Winter of a profusely extra-illustrated Macklin Bible with the Philpotts provenance for £47,000.
Around the same time a defective second folio King James Bible with this Truro provenance sold for £8500 at Sotheby’s. But it was at their June 9 sale of Continental books that some of the really important books from the 1883 bequest of the Rev. Franke Parker, Rector of Luffincott, to the Bishopric of Cornwall emerged and sold for close on £400,000 (including premium).
As last week’s Antiquarian Books pages noted, they included a Complutensian Polyglot Bible of 1514-17 at £58,000, a 1518 Aldine Greek Bible, the editio princeps of the complete Bible in Greek at £50,000 and the 1470 Augsburg first of Flavius Josephus’s great Jewish history, the Antiquitates judaicae... which sold at £65,000.
That Sotheby’s made more money in commissions selling a handful of books from the disposal than the Library received in total serves as a cautionary tale for other institutions considering a similar clear-out.
The librarian of the Henry Philpotts Library has since retired and the Chairman of Trustees responsible for the disposal has moved on; it is their successors who are left to rue the considerable financial loss. Mr Thornton, meanwhile, would appear to have closed his shop and could not be contacted by ATG for comment.
By Ian McKay
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