British University Drops Its Proposal to Sell 4 Valuable Shakespeare Works

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The U. of London's Senate House Library, whose reading room is shown here, received four Shakespeare folios in 1956. The university's plan to sell them raised hackles among scholars.
September 05, 2013

[Update (9/5/2013, 10:38 p.m.): This article has been updated throughout to reflect the university's decision on Thursday evening not to go ahead with the proposed sale.]

After meeting with a torrent of outrage from scholars in Britain, the University of London abandoned on Thursday evening its proposal to sell a set of early printed Shakespeare editions that it had received as a gift. The proposal had also raised concerns about whether the move would violate the donor's original intent and discourage future donations to colleges and universities.

The four bound editions of Shakespeare works, known as folios, were given to the university's Senate House Library by Sir Louis Sterling in 1956. The library had said it was considering selling the folios to raise money for its endowment and to help invest in other historic collections. The sale of the four folios was just "one option being considered," it had said in a statement, noting that the university's seven other folios by the bard would remain in the library. The four works were expected to bring in at least $4.5-million.

Sir Louis, a New York-born businessman who emigrated to Britain at the age of 24 and made a fortune in the recording industry, was an enthusiastic collector of books and manuscripts who amassed a collection of more than 4,200 books and about 80 manuscripts. According to Julia Walworth, research fellow and librarian of Merton College, Oxford, who researched Sir Louis when she was director of historical collections at Senate House Library, he expected his donation to form the cornerstone of a larger rare-book collection and provided an endowment to help pay for future acquisitions.

There is little doubt, she said, that Sir Louis would be appalled to learn that the university was contemplating auctioning off some of the gems of his collection.

'Misguided and Ill-Advised'

The response from academe was similar. Henry R. Woudhuysen, a Shakespeare scholar and the rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, was consulted about the proposed sale by Christopher Pressler, director of Senate House Libraries, and in an open letter to Mr. Pressler stated his opposition. "I am not able to offer the support that you seek and ... I am entirely against any such move," he wrote. He added that he would "do all that I can—publicly and privately—to prevent any such sale."

An online petition protesting the possible sale gathered more than 2,000 signatures. The signatories included Paul Ayris, director of library services at University College London, which is one of the 18 colleges that constitute the university. Selling the works would be "misguided and ill-advised," he said in a statement. "We believe that the sale of these four folios would also have wider implications for other libraries in London, indeed for all research libraries in the U.K., especially at a time when research libraries are trying to showcase their special collections and to use them as vehicles for fund raising."

Such vocal opposition from one of the constituent institutions of the University of London highlights the unusual dynamics at play. Once a sprawling and powerful federal university whose member colleges awarded degrees under its auspices, the University of London has had its central role reduced; its colleges now operate largely independently, many with degree-granting authority of their own.

Troubling Precedent

The proposed sale of the Shakespeare folios would set a troubling precedent that could deter potential donors, said Mr. Woudhuysen. "In my job at Oxford as head of a college, you have to be extremely careful about relations with alumni if you want alumni to give you things, like money or books. If they see you getting rid of them, they're going to think twice." He himself is a collector and plans to someday donate parts of his collection to Oxford's Bodleian Library. If it happened to change its policy and started "disposing of books, I wouldn't give them," he said.

Another reason for the visceral reaction to the proposal is the extent to which the folios' sale would have flown in the face of the customary British deference to precedent and history. "We are temporary custodians of these items. They are not ours permanently, we just look after them for a while and then they pass to the next generation," Mr. Woudhuysen explained, noting that his college is nearly 600 years old and that he would never think of selling any of its assets.

At least one of Sir Louis's relatives, his great niece, had protested the proposed fate of his gift, and permission for any sale would have had to be granted by the Charity Commission, which regulates charities in Britain. For his part, Mr. Woudhuysen has little doubt about the university's ultimate intentions. The documents he was asked to review made clear that a timetable for the sale had already been established, he said, and that the folios were set to tour four American cities and Hong Kong over the next two months. The auction date reportedly was set for November 12.

Clarification (9/10/2013, 12:39 p.m.): This article originally said Sir Louis didn't have any heirs who could lodge an objection to the proposed sale of his gift. But his great niece, Paula Sterling Surrey, says she objected to the sale. The article has been updated to reflect this clarification.