A demand from the National Archives for lots to be withdrawn from auction at Tennants of Leyburn could have wider implications for the trade in historical documents.
Tennants withdrew the four lots - documents
relating to prison records of the 19th century - from their May 8
sale after being informed by the National Archives that they
appeared to be public records under the terms of the 1958 Public
Records Act and, therefore, could not be sold.
The documents, ranging in date from the
1837-39 records of Lincolnshire Castle Gaol to the 1890 list of
hangman and executioner appointments, were acquired by the vendor
in the 1960s and there is no question over the probity of that
However, what goes to the heart of the issue
is the apparent belief of the National Archives that such public
documents could never pass into private ownership because no-one
would have the authority to make such a transaction or gift.
If this premise stands, it would call into
question the sale and private ownership of documents from every
sphere of public life relating to government, such as the military,
politics and the civil service.
Specialist Paul Hughes, who has worked at
Tennants for six years following a career as a dealer, told ATG
that he had never come across a similar situation, asking: "Where
does the burden of proof lie - with the vendor or auctioneer, or
the Ministry of Justice?"
Tennants are not alone, however.
In March J.S. Auctions of Banbury had to
withdraw from sale a set of logbooks from the 617 Dambuster
Squadron after being challenged over their title by the RAF.
In their case, the logbooks had been
consigned by the son of the man to whom they had been given by a
617 Squadron member in the early 1980s. An accompanying letter,
apparently at first thought by the RAF to be a forgery, has now
been acknowledged as genuine, but the investigation as to whether
the squadron member who made the gift had the authority to do so
Historical documents specialist Richard
Westwood-Brookes of Shropshire auctioneers Mullock's, who regularly
offers major documents of international importance, said that he
was aware of restrictions and bans on the sale of manorial and
tithe records, which were deemed property of the Crown, but added
that the sort of challenge faced by Tennants was a "very, very hazy
"If the authorities making them withdraw the
items from auction turn out to be wrong, should the vendor and
auctioneer be able to sue them for material loss?" he asked.
Last week's ATG auction previews included a
lot for Mullocks' May 21 sale, the telexed dispatch announcing the
retaking of the Falklands, as signed by the then Prime Minister,
Margaret Thatcher, among others. The item was sourced from Lady
A similar challenge from the National
Archives on the basis that the dispatch was a public record under
the Act would effectively be arguing that the Prime Minister had no
right to retain it for private use.
Mr Westwood-Brookes has received no such
challenge as yet.
As ATG went to press, both Tennants and J.S. Auctions were still
waiting for an update on their respective investigations.
Meanwhile, ATG were waiting for a statement from the Ministry of
Justice on the matter.