Royal Asiatic Society and sale of manuscript
D.Wujastyk at ucl.ac.uk
Tue Nov 9 12:23:17 UTC 1993
There is a serious controversy brewing in London, over the sale by the
Royal Asiatic Society of a valuable series of paintings
You may recall that some years ago the RAS sold a MS of the Rashid-al-din.
There was quite a controversy at the time, with the Fellows participating
in a public debate about the issues. Many Fellows resigned in protest at
the time, feeling that the RAS's custodial role of treasures donated over
the centuries had been fatally compromised. Others felt that the financial
exigencies of the Society's position then justified the sale. The money
raised by the sale of the MS enabled the RAS to buy its own property, and
at the time it was widely understood amongst the remaining Fellows that the
RAS was now on a firm financial footing, and could resume and indeed
somewhat expand its role in the scholarly community.
During this August, when the Society was shut and most Fellows out of
station, the Society decided to sell another manuscript. This time affairs
seem to have been handled differently, with almost nobody outside the
RAS Council being aware of the pending sale. The manuscript was handed
over to Southeby's and was actually sold last month, for 1.22 million
pounds. There was no attempt to air the decision amongst the Fellows
generally, indeed most Fellows were completely unaware of the matter until
I append a copy of an article published in the London newspaper The
Telegraph which presents the issues in journalistic style.
A Special General Meeting was announced last week, to be held on 9th
December at the RAS in London, to discuss this matter. With the
announcement came two statements from Prof. Bivar, which I shall copy out
and post to INDOLOGY later today.
Printed Wed Nov 03 15:34:14 1993
Rank: 1, DocID: 12214
DTL 03 AUG 93 / The Arts: Fury as treasures of the East go west - Plans to
sell off one of the finest collections of flora and fauna drawings in
Britain has sent shockwaves through academia. Bruce Palling reports
By BRUCE PALLING
PROMINENT scholars from institutions ranging from the School of Oriental
and African Studies in London to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew are up
in arms about the decision of the Royal Asiatic Society to sell off an
immensely valuable collection of historical drawings. Orientalists and
natural historians alike are furious that the Society has instructed
Sotheby's to auction in October more than 600 exquisite coloured drawings
of flora and fauna put together 170 years ago by General William Farquhar,
the first Resident of Singapore.
No attempt has been made to offer the Collection to another British
institution. According to one senior member, many of the staff at the
Society's Bayswater headquarters are opposed to the sale but are scared to
The Royal Asiatic Society is not a place one associates with controversy.
Since it was founded in 1823, the reigning monarch has always been its
Patron. Its 1,000 or so fellows include the world's most distinguished
orientalists, devoted to the study of Asian history, cultures and
languages. The Farquhar Collection is probably the most important
collection of flora and fauna drawings held by an institution to face
dispersal in Britain this century. Estimates for the sale range from pounds
400,000 to pounds 750,000 and beyond. While everyone involved speaks of the
desirability of keeping the Collection together, few doubt that it will be
split up and sold in lots to collectors for drawing-room walls.
This prospect does not appear to concern Professor A. D. H. Bivar, the
president of the Society. He says that the Collection will probably fetch
less as a whole than in individual lots and 'that will not be to the
Society's advantage'. More extraordinarily, he concedes that there is no
pressing reason for the auction, but says: 'We are running a deficit so we
would welcome more capital.'
The drawings were presented to the Society by Farquhar, a colourful
character, in 1827. Such was his love of natural history that he employed
three keepers for his personal menagerie, which included a leopard, a
porcupine and a tiger that he kept in his house. He paid various local
artists to make the drawings in the Collection. (Farquhar's arch rival, Sir
Stamford Raffles, had the misfortune to see his collection destroyed when
the ship returning him to England was engulfed by fire off Sumatra in
1824.) In 1937, the Society lodged the drawings with the Natural History
Museum Library where they remained on loan until 1991.
What adds to the Farquhar Collection's importance is that many of the
original plant specimens are still held in the Wallich Collection of the
Royal Botanical Gardens Herbarium at Kew.
Few fellows of the Society knew of the existence of the Farquhar Collection
until a beautiful catalogue of the paintings, drawings, engravings and
busts belonging to the Society was published in 1991. Critics of the sale
believe the catalogue may have been the Collection's downfall, as they
suspect a wealthy collector in the Far East may have made inquiries as to
its availability. Potential purchasers include the Sultan of Brunei and
various institutions in Singapore. Sotheby's intend to display the
Collection in several South-East Asian capitals before the sale.
Both Professor Bivar and Dr Dennis Duncanson, the Society's director, say
the prime reason for the sale is the lack of security at its headquarters,
where the Collection is once again housed. This argument is dismissed as
'nonsense' by one former fellow: 'The Society has far more valuable items
at its headquarters than the Farquhar Collection. Besides, the security
systems have been extensively upgraded in the past three years.' When asked
if he had consulted the Natural History Museum Library about the sale of
the Collection, Dr Duncanson replies: 'Yes. They said they had quite liked
having it but if they no longer had it, it would not be a matter of great
concern.' He adds: 'It is not a national treasure - it is really a work of
art and not a source of learning.'
Dr Duncanson's assertions are hotly disputed by Rex Banks, the head of
Library Services at the Natural History Museum. He describes the behaviour
of the Royal Asiatic Society as 'outrageous'. Banks says that the
correspondence with the Society 'focused entirely on the need for
preservation of the volumes. I contacted it a decade ago expressing concern
at the deterioration of the leather and the binding. It took them away in
1991 to determine what conservation work had to be done . . . 'What is
slightly devious here is the apparent disguise of the intent to dispose of
the Collection. We were never aware that it was taking them away for
anything other than conservation purposes. We have still not been
officially told about the sale . . . The Society has treated us very
The Society argues that the cost of repairing and rebinding the six folio
volumes that make up the Collection is beyond its resources. Dr Duncanson
claims the estimate it was given by Shepherds, a leading London bookbinder,
was pounds 6,000; Professor Bivar says the Society believed the final
figure would be higher. However, the bookbinders themselves say the figure
they quoted was only pounds 3,000.
Professor Bivar is unrepentant about not offering the Collection to another
institution. 'We couldn't really justify making a sale at a cut price just
for sentimental reasons,' he says.
Several former council members of the Society have expressed misgivings
about the sale and especially the way that it was raised at the annual
general meeting last May as a verbal report, with no discussion about what
the options were.
One former council member now speaking out is Barry Bloomfield, formerly
head librarian at the School of Oriental and African Studies and then at
the India Office Library: 'Breaking up a collection like this is perhaps
not the best way of proceeding . . . There was no major reason given for
the need to sell it but any learned society asked if it would like
three-quarters of a million pounds will inevitably say yes.'
Dr John Bastin, Reader Emeritus in South-East Asian history at the
University of London, says the Farquhar Collection is 'the finest
collection of such drawings. Their historical and scientific importance
goes beyond this, however, because they relate to other similar drawings in
national collections in the UK . . . To remove them from this country and
especially to break up the collection would be a tragedy.'
Dr Duncanson, a former reader in South-East Asian Studies at the University
of Kent, was also director when the Society sold the Rashid Al-Din, a
14th-century Persian illustrated manuscript, at Sotheby's for pounds
935,000 in 1981. There was considerable protest at the sale, but an appeal
failed to raise more than pounds 500,000 to save it. The proceeds from the
sale of the Rashid Al-Din were used to purchase the freehold on the
Society's current headquarters.
If there were a genuine financial crisis, some fellows would prefer to see
the Society's treasures sold to an institution such as the British Museum.
What horrifies them about the Farquhar sale is that it faces the prospect
of being destroyed as a collection.
The first - and last - time a member of the Society was asked to leave was
in 1910, when he wrote a letter to The Times supporting 'political
assassination, and in particular the assassination of Englishmen by
Indians'. Should the Farquhar Collection be irretrievably broken up on
October 20, after surviving intact for nearly two centuries, a number of
fellows may voluntarily relinquish their membership in disgust.
The Daily Telegraph
Dominik Wujastyk Phone (and voice messages): +44 71 611 8467
Wellcome Institute, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE.
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