More than Meets the Eye
An Edward Curtis image from Christie's on the 10th
By Bruce McKinney
Two sales this year by libraries in the United States illustrate how procedure may influence public response when material is deaccessioned. The two libraries are the Wilmington, Delaware Public Library and the Gleeson Library at the University of San Francisco. The purposes in both cases were the same: to sell material to raise money to invest in their physical plants. For the Wilmington Public Library they hope to pay for a new roof, heating and air conditioning system. In the case of USF it is to pay for rare book library upgrades that their spokesman has described this way:
"The room that currently houses our collection is inadequate: it does not offer proper controls for humidity, temperature, lighting or protection from fire. Expensive upgrades are necessary to ensure our collection's long-term survival."
In both cases, the material sent to auction was donated decades earlier by distinguished donors, Lammot du Pont to Wilmington, Reinhard Timken-Zinkann to the Gleeson. Neither donor restricted deaccession. The University of San Francisco offered some of Mr. Timken-Zinkann's Durer prints at Bonham's & Butterfield's on May 11th, the Wilmington Public Library a complete set of the Curtis Indian Portfolio on October 8th at Christie's in New York.
Here the similarities end.
The Durer prints, although valuable did not do well. The Curtis brought $775,000, a good price in the current environment.
The sale of material from the Gleeson Library was not announced, neither was its provenance included in the lot descriptions. Neither did the material, as is often the case at public auction, identify the seller. As luck would have it though, in the days leading up to the sale, the material's history as part of the Gleeson archives was discovered by members of the Gleeson's Friends of the Library and an extraordinary debate subsequently ensued.
The upshot was bruised feelings all around. The university felt it had the right to dispose but did so in a way that made obvious its embarrassment. The Friends of the Gleeson Library felt betrayed and both past and future donors were left angry and concerned.
The recent sale of the twenty volume set of Curtis by the Wilmington Library was a very different experience.
The Wilmington Delaware Public Library's Board of Overseer's publicly authorized the sale this past spring and then consigned the set to Christie's who issued an announcement on May 5th, fully five months ahead of the bidding. The owner was identified and the sale's purpose explained.
More than Meets the Eye
Immediately following the announcement concerns were raised and reported in Delaware newspapers but no ground swell of opposition ensued. When the Curtis then came up at Christie's on October 8th there was no outcry, only the market's judgment that the starting bid was a tad high. It failed to sell. Following the auction a prospective buyer made an offer and the Wilmington Library quickly accepted. When Christie's then announced the top lots sold in the sale, the set of Curtis was, even after negotiation, the most expensive item. Click here.
One can only wonder if the Friends of the Gleeson Library had been consulted about the Durer prints whether an agreement could have been reached. Perhaps not. But institutions do sometimes need to raise money, if not to pay for improvements to the physical plant, then simply to dispose of out-of-focus holdings to acquire material more germane to the institution's current focus.
The obvious conclusion is that clarity, negotiation and agreement within the library are important and probably essential to successful deaccession. Without these components the prospect of failure looms large.
Separately, I include a proposal for library deaccession [The Gifted Institution: a plan for deaccession] that seeks to honor donors while permitting material to be exchanged among institutions in an efficient way. Dr. Belanger's concerns, clearly expressed in his recent talk at the California Book Club in San Francisco, recognize that institutions may err.