Scientific treasures for sale to clear Royal Institution’s debt
AS ONE of the world’s most august scientific bodies, Britain’s Royal Institution has amassed a library of treasures that tell of discoveries in the muscle fibres of the human body and the paths of planets through the heavens.
The institution has now been forced to delve into its collection in an attempt to plug a £2 million (NZ$4.59m) debt by selling rare books.
Sir Andre Geim, who won the Nobel Prize for physics for his work on graphene, said it was a mistake to sell the assets, which include first editions of works by Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton.
He said there were better ways to repay the debt, which is the residue of a £7 million deficit caused by an expensive refurbishment in 2008.
He suggested that the institution should reconsider a plan mooted in 2013 to merge the institution with the Royal Society.
‘‘The RI has a proven track record of being not a very good caretaker.’’
A highlight of the sale, which will take place at Christie’s in London on December 1, is a first edition of Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica, an anatomical guide published in 1543 that revolutionised medicine. The book, which features 200 woodcuts of the workings of the human body, could fetch up to £220,000.
The institution acquired it from Martin Tupper, doctor to the Duke of Wellington, in 1845. Stefania Pandakovic, of Christie’s, described it as ‘‘one of the most important and beautiful anatomies in the history of medicine’’.
James Wilsdon, the professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex, said he understood why the trustees had approved the sale, which is expected to raise at least £750,000.
‘‘It’s obviously very sad to see the Royal Institution being placed in a position where it’s forced to sell these scientific treasures,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s a great shame to see them moving, particularly if they end up in the hands of private collectors.’’
Wilsdon said the trustees, who include Lord Winston, had been placed in an impossible position since the £22 million refurbishment.
‘‘I wouldn’t blame trustees,’’ Wilsdon said.
‘‘They’re obviously trying to put the organisation back on a more stable financial footing.’’
Other lots include Jakob Bernoulli’s mathematical treatise Ars Conjectandi, published in 1713, and Johannes Kepler’s Astronomia nova, a 10-year study of Mars published in 1609 that helped to establish that Earth rotated around the Sun.
The Royal Institution said the books were ‘‘non-core heritage items’’ that would not enter its collection today even if offered as a gift.
It also hopes to clear its debt by leasing its bar to a commercial tenant and hosting private events.