Brontë Society calls to save rare manuscripts and artefacts from auction - Museums Association

Brontë Society calls to save rare manuscripts and artefacts from auction

The Honresfield Library is set to be sold by Sotheby’s after almost a century in a private collection
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Francesca Collins
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1841 birthday notes by Emily and Anne Brontë, with sketches by Emily, as included in the Honresfield Library
1841 birthday notes by Emily and Anne Brontë, with sketches by Emily, as included in the Honresfield Library Sotheby's

The Brontë Society has made a statement on the proposed sale of rare Brontë family manuscripts and heirlooms as part of the forthcoming Sotheby’s auction of the Honresfield Library.

The library is a collection of more than 500 documents attributed to renowned literary figures including manuscripts, letters and first editions by writers including the Brontë sisters, Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

One of the most valuable items is a rare handwritten manuscript of Emily Brontë’s poems, with pencil corrections added by her sister Charlotte. Sotheby’s has valued the manuscript at between £800,000 and £1.2m.

The Brontë Society, one of the oldest literary societies in the English-speaking world, said: “The Brontë Society exists to collect and preserve Brontë manuscripts and artefacts for the public benefit.

“The manuscripts in the Honresfield Library were written in Haworth and, as a collection, they bear witness to the intense collaboration and creativity that bound Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë together and to their home at Haworth Parsonage.

“The Society believes that the rightful home for these unique and extraordinary manuscripts, unseen for a hundred years, is at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, where they can be enjoyed by visitors, explored by scholars and shared with Brontë enthusiasts around the world for generations to come.”

A large old house
The Brontë Society says that the Brontë Parsonage is the “rightful home” for the collection DeFacto / CC-BY-SA 4.0

The Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire, was the home of the Brontë family from 1820 to 1861 and was gifted to the Brontë Society in 1928. Today the museum houses the world’s largest collection of artefacts and documents associated with the Brontë family and their work.

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The statement goes on to voice the society’s concern that the significant collection “will be dispersed and disappear into private collections across the globe”. Their goal is to save as much of the Brontë material as possible, but they cite the financial impact of the pandemic as a barrier.

Concluding the statement, the society calls for the public to “look beyond the narrow commercialisation and privatisation of heritage and work together to protect and share what we all value”, and urges all with an interest in aiding the society in saving the collection to get in contact.

The Brontë collection was comprised by Arthur Bell Nichols, Charlotte Brontë’s widower. Bell Nichols sold the majority of the material to Thomas James Wise in 1895, and industrialist brothers Alfred and William Law acquired the documents and other family heirlooms thereafter, going on to collate what became known as the Honresfield Library.

The Law brothers’ library at Honresfield House has been inaccessible to all but a few scholars since the death of their nephew and heir Alfred Law in 1939. Though thought to be lost for almost a century, the Law family heirs have maintained the collection and are now putting it up for auction.

Rebecca Yorke of the Brontë Society executive team said: “While it’s exciting that the Honresfield Library has re-emerged after almost a century, it’s extremely concerning that it is being sold off piecemeal and may end up dispersed across the globe never to be seen again.

“With national libraries and literary house museums, the public custodians of such materials, struggling to survive after a year of forced closure and lost revenue, this is not the moment to bring national treasures onto the international market. We are working with other literary museums, including Jane Austen’s House, to lobby for this unrivalled collection to be saved intact for the nation.”

Highlights from the collection will be exhibited at Sotheby’s New York headquarters from 5 to 9 June, before the works are auctioned across three sales scheduled for this year and in 2022. The first auction will be held online with bidding open from 2 to 13 July.

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