Lost pages of history

A university library needs funds. What to do? Sell the books, of course.
Books were Charles Turner's life. Friends of the eccentric senior civil servant recall how he often went without life's luxuries, including winter coats, to buy them. His collection of early maths books and manuscripts covered every conceivable surface in his top-floor flat in Wimbledon, London. "There was no dining-room or lounge," remembers David Ingram, a retired professor, who admired the books as a boy. "The whole flat seemed to be an extended part of his library.

"I was always rather surprised by the frugal nature of his life. There was little cutlery in his flat and he didn't seem to eat much. It was a rather austere existence."

Over 50 years Turner diligently amassed 1,400 works, including eight from Newton's own library. "[It] gave one a sense of being part of the march of time," says Ingram. "Handling the very books great mathematicians like Newton and Galileo had once owned was magical. To discover their scribbled notes and additions to calculations truly brought the subject alive."

To understand mathematics there's no substitute for reading the words of the great masters, says David Singmaster, a retired professor: "Reproductions and facsimiles do not encourage a personal connection with the past. And, even if they did, no matter what people say these things just aren't being digitised; it's expensive, it takes a long time and nobody's got any money."

In 1968, Turner determined to leave his rare and valuable collection to future generations. He wanted his act of benevolence to help build the prestige of "a university library that had not had the opportunity or good fortune to acquire such an important special collection", he told his friend. Keele University, where Ingram taught physics, was just the kind of red-brick institution Turner had in mind. In appreciation Keele awarded Turner an honorary degree and organised a handing-over ceremony at which Princess Margaret, then chancellor of the university, thanked him in person.

Thirty years later, Keele University has unceremoniously sold the Turner Collection for pounds 1m. After years of budget cuts they needed funds to invest in library materials.

Contrary to the university's statement last November, the books are likely to leave the country: the London book dealer Simon Finch, one of at least three dealers known to be associated with the sale, has applied for several export licences.

The university's decision to sell was far from clear-cut. Debate in academic senate during June last year was heated. By a slim majority representatives voted not to sell. Staff at Keele thought that was the end of the matter, but on 26 June the university's smaller ruling council - responsible, together with the Vice-Chancellor, for day-to-day management - made a rare and controversial decision to ignore the will of senate on a major issue. A commercial offer of pounds 1m was already on the table. Within 10 days the books had been removed from the library.

The books' likely destination is the United States, where there is massive demand for early works - and where the British antiquarian book dealer Simon Finch has done lucrative business in the past. The Internet revolution has made millionaires of many computer geeks almost overnight. With high disposable incomes and a natural interest in all things mathematical they're driving the price of early works to unprecedented levels: a first edition of Newton's Principia Mathematica recently went for $300,000 (pounds 185,000) at auction in New York, while an Archimedes manuscript fetched $2.2m last October.

The secrecy of the sale of the Turner collection is surpassed only by the secrecy surrounding the export of works of art. The Department for Culture would neither confirm nor deny that applications for export licences had been made or granted. Furthermore, when the Shadow culture secretary, Peter Ainsworth, tabled a written question in the House of Commons, it became clear that the Government does not know the "exact present location" of the Turner Collection.

"It is disgraceful and astonishing that an important collection of this kind can simply disappear," says Ainsworth. "There is an air of mystery surrounding the export of collections and works of art that needs to be dispelled. This is far from an isolated case and it is clear that reform is of great urgency."

Critics believe that the Turner Collection was undersold - it included all three editions of Newton's Principia and a copy of Galileo's Il Saggiatore... of 1625, which Galileo had extensively annotated. "Newton's books alone," asserts Singmaster, "could have fetched pounds 1m at auction." Senior academics at Keele, with the support of four local MPs, are demanding an internal enquiry into the affair.

A spokeperson for the university, however, maintains that the sale price was a fair one. They declined to specify which, if any, major national antiquarian book-selling company, international firm of auctioneers or other specialists the university might have consulted for advice and valuations. The London Mathematical Society, the British Society for the History of Mathematics, the British Society for the History of Science and the British Library all maintain that they were not consulted about the sale.

Keele stands by its decision to sell. Turner attached no strings to his gift, says a spokesperson. The collection was theirs to sell and in doing so they have broken no laws; besides, they say, the books were little-used and far from unique. A statement from the university said: "The university received assurances at the point of sale that the collection would remain intact and in Britain and available to scholars."

Senior academics at Keele, with the support of four local MPs, will this week demand an internal enquiry into the affair. The British Library has already demanded (and obtained) the return of a pounds 10,000 grant made to the university for rebinding the books. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Museums & Galleries Commission, James Joll, has called for urgent reform of the "unsatisfactory legal status" of collections and objects donated to public bodies. Universities, he added, cannot simply regard such collections as private assets to be sold off at will to the highest bidder.

At least three book dealers have been associated with the sale - Robert Downie, Daniel McDowell and Simon Finch. No written assurances about the collection's destiny were made. Keele would not comment on whether it believed conditions of sale had been breached, or whether it plans to act to stop the books leaving Britain. It is not the university's decision to sell per se that has angered critics, but that the collection was sold to a dealer, not another British public institution, to ensure that the collection remained part of the nation's stock of wealth - and accessible by scholars.

Keele University council minutes of 28 June record that the sale was agreed in principle, "following further investigations of the options". Yet within 10 days the books had been removed from library shelves. The unversity maintains the books were offered to other public bodies, but declines to specify which.

Oxford University, Cambridge University, the Royal Society, the Royal Astronomical Society and the British Library all have an interest in early mathematical works. Keele had not offered the collection, in part or whole, to them.

Dr David McKitterick, chief librarian at Trinity College, Cambridge, where Newton was an undergraduate, says: "pounds 1m would not have been an impossible sum to find. Some libraries would have worked extremely hard to pay."

Of futher concern is the disappearance from Keele University library of an additional 200 books, known as the With Turner Collection. The fact that the supplementary collection might be included in the sale is not mentioned in minutes of either the university's senate or its council. The books were never part of the Turner bequest, but were bought with public funds and intended for the use of Keele staff and students.

At least one of the books, complete with Keele University Library's embossed stamp, has surfaced in New York, purchased on the Internet from Robert Downie. Downie, a graduate of Keele who has done regular business with the university, maintains that the With Turner Collection was "all part of the arrangement of the sale".

Keele is not the first university to cash in. Despite widespread protests the University of Manchester sold 97 magnificent medieval and Renaissance books and manuscripts in April 1988. Although the books - which fetched pounds 1,838,760 at Sotheby's - were duplicates, Lord Strabolgi, Labour arts spokesman at the time, revealed that in every case the university had chosen to sell the better copy of each pair held. MPs, peers and academics warned that the university was setting a dangerous precedent.

The only good thing to come out of the sale is that the culture secretary, Chris Smith, has undertaken to review the export laws. Sadly, it may be too late for Charles Turner's precious legacy.