Sotheby’s has agreed to postpone the highly publicized auction of a “lost” library of rare manuscripts by Robert Burns, Walter Scott and the Bronts as a consortium of UK libraries and museums has begun raising $ 21 million to buy it for the Nation.
This private library, the Honresfield Library, was built in the 19th century and has been virtually unseen since the 1930s. News last month that the library had resurfaced and was going to be sold in a series of auctions from July onwards had sparked excitement among scholars and fans, as well as concerns that cultural treasures might again be scattered in inaccessible private collections.
In a statement Thursday announcing acquisition efforts, Friends of National Libraries group said it hopes to buy the collection in full and then distribute it to institutions across the UK “for the public good”.
“A private library of English literature of such importance has not been on the open market for many decades,” and “is unlikely to appear again,” the statement said. “A great and coordinated effort is required to save this amazingly important collection.”
Eight institutions work together on this project: the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds and house museums dedicated to Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Robert Burns and the Brontës.
The Honresfield Library was built from the 1890s by Alfred and William Law, two self-built mill owners who grew up less than 20 miles from the Brontë House in Haworth (now the Brontë Parsonage Museum). After her death, the collection passed to a nephew, who granted access to selected scholars and had facsimiles made of some objects.
But after the nephew’s death in 1939, the originals fell from the public eye. In the 1940s, the collection was “almost impossible to find,” as one scholar put it at the time.
In a statement, Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s specialist in English literature and historical manuscripts, called the proposed acquisition “an appropriate tribute to the Law brothers’ insatiable literary interests and the excellent care their families have cared for this material for over a century”. Sotheby’s did not disclose the auction delay period that the two parties had agreed on.
At the heart of the library is what the Consortium called the “amazing collection of manuscripts” of the Bronts, many of which “have been unseen and never properly examined for 80 years.” This includes a handwritten manuscript of Emily Brontë’s 1844 poems with pencil corrections by Charlotte, which had an auction estimate of $ 1.1 million to $ 1.7 million – a near-record for a manuscript of modern English literature when it reaches would have been.
There are also seven miniature books from Charlotte, about 25 letters from Charlotte, and a diary-style birthday note Emily wrote for her sister Anne, complete with a tiny drawing of Emily on her desk.
Other highlights of the collection, recently seen at Sotheby’s in New York, include the complete working manuscript of Scott’s 1817 novel “Rob Roy” (estimate $ 560,000 to $ 840,000) and the manuscript compendium known as Burns’ “First Commonplace Book “From 1783-1785 (estimate $ 420,000 to $ 700,000) containing some of his earliest literary writings.
The consortium’s announcement also highlighted “two extremely meaningful letters” from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, including one on the eve of a ball awaiting the end of a love affair. Only three early Austen letters have survived in a British national collection, the group noted, with the majority of surviving being held in the Morgan Library in New York City instead.
In recent years, UK literary artifact auctions have become the focus of high profile fundraisers aimed at keeping them at home. In 2013, Jane Austen’s House Museum acquired a turquoise ring that was once worn by the author after raising $ 236,000 to match American singer Kelly Clarkson’s auction price. And in 2019, the Brontë Society raised nearly $ 800,000 to buy one of Charlotte’s miniature books who had previously fled to France.
Richard Ovenden, head of the Bodleian Libraries, said a similar national resolve is now urgently needed.
“Literature and the creative use of the English language and its dialects are among the great contributions made by the inhabitants of these islands,” he said in the consortium’s announcement. “Now is the time to act together, to preserve and share some of the greatest examples of this legacy.”