The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) says that “no firm decisions” have been taken about selling rare books from its collection after more than 600 of its fellows and members wrote an open letter opposing such a move.
The college has been working with auction house Bonhams to understand the practicalities around making a sale, which it says could raise £6m and help it avoid making redundancies. But the plans have met fierce opposition from within the college and the museum and library sector.
The Museums Association’s (MA) Code of Ethics, which forms part of Arts Council England’s (ACE) Accreditation Standard for museums, says collections “should not normally be regarded as financially negotiable assets”.
The RCP has a significant library, archive and museum collection including donations from medical pioneers such as William Harvey. The college says there are no proposals to sell any specific books yet, but the Times recently reported that a sale was planned from a collection bequeathed by the Marquess of Dorchester in 1680. This includes some of the RCP’s rarest books, such as an early edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a psalter that belonged to Elizabeth I’s astronomer John Dee, and Recuyell of the Histories of Troye, the first book printed in English.
More than 600 members, fellows and honorary fellows of the college have opposed a sale in an open letter to the RCP's president Andrew Goddard and its chair of trustees David Croisdale-Appleby. They say selling important material from the collection would be a dereliction of duty, representing “a breach of trust between the public, the benefactors and the college through the irreparable damage caused by the transfer of the college’s and the nation’s cultural inheritance into private hands”.
Signatories include the former UK government chief scientific adviser Mark Walport, as well as two former RCP presidents – Carol Black and Richard Thompson.
They say “the sale of important material from the college’s unique and important collection would damage its reputation, nationally and internationally, amongst fellows, members and the wider medical profession”.
The letter also complains of a lack of transparency from the RCP’s leadership and questions the financial need for a sale when the college’s most recent accounts say it is a “going concern”.
A letter from Goddard in response confirms that a sale is under consideration, presenting this as one of several possible ways of addressing the financial difficulties created by Covid-19. Goddard says the college will lose 31% of its income (£14m) this year because of the pandemic and predicts a further loss of £9m next year.
He says that a sale has been considered by the RCP’s board of trustees for several years, and that formal steps towards one began in mid-2019 when funds were needed for the fitout of a new RCP office in Liverpool. The plans were put on hold when a £6.75m bank loan was secured, before being dusted down amid the current crisis.
Goddard says the college ran a deficit of £8.8m between 2016 and 2019, but adds that this was planned, and offset by investment gains. He says that a £3.2m drop in the organisation’s reserves from 2014 to 2019 came from addressing a pre-existing pension scheme deficit.
The letter stresses that “we have not agreed to sell any particular book” and says members will be consulted about the available choices in the next few weeks.
Goddard says that any assets sold would be “non-medical”. But the question of what this means is raised in the open letter, whose authors say the wide-ranging intellectual interests of medieval and early modern physicians makes such boundaries “arbitrary”.
Goddard’s letter says “the definition of ‘non-medical’ is one of individual perspective” and adds that the college will work with its elected council of fellows to reach a final decision on this.
The RCP’s website says its library collection “reflects the interests of past physicians and the broad education they were expected to have”, including rare books on law, architecture, travel and cookery as well as science and medicine.
Goddard’s letter says the college recognises the need to “follow an ethical approach to de-accession if we go down this route”.
It says that during initial discussions with experts in 2019, “the risk of a temporary loss of museum Accreditation status was made clear early on and was felt by our advisers to be preventable if we decided to go ahead with the sale”.
“We are still working with our library and museum team to understand how deaccession can best be done to minimise the risk to our museum status,” wrote Goddard.
The letter says the RCP recently began working with Bonhams to ensure it understands its book collection’s “provenance, value and what would have the least impact on our collection whilst allowing the RCP to avoid significant redundancies”.
The MA Code of Ethics says museums should “refuse to undertake disposal principally for financial reasons, except where it will significantly improve the long-term public benefit derived from the remaining collection”.
It says objects should only be sold in this way as a last resort, when other sources of funding have been thoroughly explored, and “not to generate short-term revenue”.
In 2014, ACE stripped Northampton Museums Service of its Accreditation after it sold an ancient Egyptian statue at auction for £15.8m. In September it was reported that some academicians at the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) had called for the sale of a Michelangelo sculpture to prevent job cuts, but the RA said it had “no intention” of doing this.