Auctioneers steal our memories, and $100,000 in a Tesco bag

I live in New Zealand, and as my profile says, I have to get the vicarious experience of antique and famous commonplace books, notebooks, journals and the rest through the computer screen.  That’s why I am eternally grateful for the museums and libraries that upload high resolution scans of commonplaces online, giving an eye-opening experience of flicking through the book itself.  Yes, the book still needs to be accessed, read and – ideally – transcribed and metatagged, but at least it is there for the viewing.

That’s why it’s always a relief to see these rare items go to the ‘right’ place, such as Swansea University successfully bidding 85,000 pounds for a long-lost Dylan Thomas notebook toward the end of last year.

Snapshot of notebook sold in December 2014 at Sotheby's

Snapshot of notebook sold in December 2014 at Sotheby’s

Lost for decades, sitting in a drawer in a Tesco bag after the maid of Thomas’ mother-in-law refused a request to toss it in the fire with a stack of other paperwork.

Not quite the undignified almost-end of Alan Turing’s notebook I wrote about recently, secreted and forgotten in a wall cavity for decades, but it just reinforces how rare these things are.  In a world where an item touched, or better still, autographed, by a celebrity is enough to imbue it with a certain financial magnetism, precious little thought is given to the papers that actually show the raw thoughts and personality of the more unknown writers.

The Dylan Thomas notebook is an anomaly.  Take a commonplace book by a relatively unknown woman named Penelope Vavasour (no, not a celebrity name), auctioned through Bonhams in mid-2014.  750 pounds including premium, and it is now in the hands of … who?

Is this the only image we'll ever get to see?

Is this the only image we’ll ever get to see?

Our world is one of reproduction.  Any question we have, we Google it.  Yes, we add unique information to the web, to share with those poor distant folk in far-flung Greenland or New Zealand, but in contrast to the ever-increasing “now” of our uploads the bottom is falling out.  The real and tangible past, the past that is recorded in fading pen and pencil scratches on fragile paper, is lost or buried.  Or, almost as bad, bought and hoarded like another piece of art or antique in a private library somewhere.

Am I saying 750 pounds is not enough to pay for an old recipe book?  No.  I’m saying maybe we should separate the trade from the fact that these items are unique pockets of history.  Who knows what perspectives, what new insights are in these works.

If auction houses had to take high quality scans of these works, put these scans on a publicly accessible site (e.g. donate them to a museum database), would that detract from the value?  Of course not.  After all, that is what is done with high-quality scans of paintings.  The value in monetary terms is in the single, physical article itself.  That has always been the case in the art world.

And yet, if you look up manuscripts, notebooks and commonplace books in a commercial site, you will find medium-resolution pics of the cover and probably a single page of tens or hundreds.  Of course the auction houses do it on purpose – by leaving much up to speculation it only adds to the interest, but to the value?  Personally I’m not so sure.

What it undeniably does, though, is rob us of unique historical information, or rather, the auction house “chooses” to remove itself from that tricky moral quandary by placing it in the hands of the buyer, buyers like Swansea University who have to battle against those who see it as a pure investment opportunity.  Will Swansea University be as moral in their decision?  Who knows.  In my view, locking it up in their records and making it only accessible to their own academic researchers would be as inexcusable as a Tesco bag in a drawer, but at least there is a slim chance we the public may have a glimpse.

I can’t say as much for Ms Vavasour’s work, and – despite your thoughts about my comparison between a famous poet’s drafts and a 1790s housewife’s cookbook – I think we are still all that little poorer for it.

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