(c) Torquay Museum. John Keats, autograph letter signed J. Keats to Fanny Brawne (My dearest love), 1820, one page, provenance Sotheby’s sale 1886

Torquay Museum consults on sale of four letters

Patrick Steel, 09.12.2014
Letters by Jane Austen, John Keats, Charlotte Brontë and Abraham Lincoln valued at £200,000
Torquay Museum has begun a public consultation into the proposed sale of letters in its collection by Jane Austen, John Keats, Charlotte Brontë and Abraham Lincoln.

The letters were bequeathed to the museum by Hester Pengelly, the daughter of the founder of the museum, William Pengelly.

An estimate by Christie’s puts combined value at £200,000. If the sale were to go ahead, any money raised would go towards building an endowment for the museum, said Barry Chandler, the museum’s collections manager.

Chandler said: “While we have the intention to sell we will go through the full process outlined by the Museums Association (MA).

“We have put the Jane Austen letter on display with a sign explaining why it may have to be sold. We will probably close the consultation in January.

“We are not intending to do anything until we have sent our findings to the Museums Association and met with the ethics committee. If the ethics committee rules against the sale then we will go to Arts Council England to find out what the implications would be for our Accreditation.

“This is not a Northampton situation. If we are told we will lose Accreditation then we will not sell the letters.”

The proposed sale is a last option, said Chandler, as the museum is in danger of losing control of its finances. In all, he would like to see the endowment fund reach £2m to ensure the museum’s financial stability.

Sharon Heal, the MA’s director, said: “It is good that Torquay Museum wants to engage with the process set out by the MA’s ethics committee.

“We would encourage all museums considering financially-motivated disposal to get in touch with the ethics committee and to follow the guidelines set out in our code of ethics and disposal toolkit.”

Torquay Museum has 330,000 items in its collection, many of which are of regional and national significance.

Much of the museum’s income comes from its £5 entrance fee. The museum received 18,743 visitors in 2013/14, down from 25,857 the previous year.

The museum is faced with a 43% cut to its £76,500-a-year grant from Torbay Council in 2015-16.

Three posts have been made redundant and the museum’s director and an apprentice are now the only full-time posts, supported by four part-time posts.

The museum is part of the Future Museums Project, funded by the arts council, which is looking at how Torquay Museum, Torre Abbey, and Brixham Heritage Museum can work together to become more resilient.

The MA's Cuts Survey 2014 found that one in ten responding museums had considered selling from their collections.


Disposal toolkit

Code of ethics

Cuts Survey 2014