Can the deliberate dispersal of an historic collection of textual materials, carefully and focusedly assembled by an individual or corporate collector, be justified? The Law Society says it needs the money, and will hold off auction until November 1, but why sell off bits of the collection like this? I met a man in 2006 (let's call him Tim, because that was, indeed, his name), who, on hearing that I work with manuscripts, told me proudly that he and a partner in Tallahassee spent a great deal of their time buying up large, intact collections of nineteenth-century US Civil War documents that they managed to procure at bargain prices. (So far, so good.) They did this with the sole intention of dismembering these collections to maximise their profit. (Not so good.) I asked him if they at least provided evidence of the provenance of these documents, so that, should fortune favour the old, the collection might one day be reassembled. Tim had no idea what I meant; he had never given such an historically-aware approach the least thought.
Profiteering in this way by deliberately fragmenting historical evidence of the passions and pursuits of earlier collectors impoverishes our human record. It's that simple. I would liken it to the more explicit lack of intellectual integrity of the St Petersburg Antiquarian Book-Dealer I spoke to once, who sells manuscript leaves on EBay for significant financial gain. Selling manuscript leaves is no crime, but when these come from a whole manuscript sliced into the smallest possible sellable part, it should be. At best, it's unethical; at worst, cultural vandalism. Societies, book-sellers, EBay scourers should at the very least have the decency to seek profit by maintaining the intactness of a cogent collection or a single manuscript, or they are actively destroying what they ironically seek to benefit from.