Marconi auction signals end of historic museum collection

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The Independent Online
The Government is being urged to intervene to prevent the break-up of one of Britain's most important privately-owned archives.

A row has broken out over a decision by the electronics giant GEC-Marconi to auction a collection of documents and early wireless equipment assoc- iated with Guglielmo Marconi, the man who invented the world's first proper radio transmitter and founded the electronics and radio communic- ation industries.

It is the first time that an industrial heritage collection of such importance has been auctioned in this country. More than half the items of early equipment in the sale formed part of the collection of a major public institution - the Science Museum - for most of the past 60 to 70 years.

GEC-Marconi's decision to split the 5,000 documents and 300 equipment items into a thousand lots to be auctioned in London in April was yesterday condemned by the Museums and Galleries Commission, the Government's advisers on museum affairs. Timothy Mason, the commission's director, described the Marconi collection as "unquestionably of fundamental importance for the history of modern communications. Their dispersal by open sale would be a tragedy and a grossly irresponsible act by its present owners".

The Marconi family and academics have also condemned the move. Marconi's daughter, Princess Elettra Marconi Giovanelli, said: "It's a tragedy. This is England's heritage and GEC-Marconi wants to throw it out of the window. If the auction goes ahead many of these treasures will disappear forever."

The manuscripts and other documents include the world's first wireless telegraphy patent (1896); the patent for the world's first radio frequency tuner; and the scribbled transcription of an intercepted secret German radio transmission announcing the Kaiser's intention to declare war in 1914. This historic note - intercepted 36 hours before war was declared - was how the British Cabinet learnt of the German action.

Other documents include the letter which first revealed the invention of the electronic valve; and the world's largest collection of papers relating to the Titanic - 2,000 wireless messages from the doomed vessel, shore stations and rescue vessels, as well as the wireless logs of many of other ships involved.

Dr David Edgerton, of Imperial College, London, an expert on the history of British technology, said an auction would be "bound to split up the collection". "Some of it may well go abroad. Most of it will no doubt end up in private hands. This would make historical research much more difficult and deprive the nation of an important part of its technological heritage."

Science Museum officials say they were told the objects were needed for a 100th anniversary audit and exhibition which GEC-Marconi wanted to hold. However it never took place because of funding, venue and viability problems.

Christie's announcement of the sale states that "this unique collection" which "charts the history of radio" will be "offered as part of the centenary celebration of GEC-Marconi".

GEC-Marconi's public relations director, Alan Tull, said the company was "absolutely satisfied" that "all appropriate options" had been investigated, adding: "We believe we are acting in the public interest."

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