Sci­en­tific trea­sures for sale to clear Royal In­sti­tu­tion’s debt

The Dominion Post - - World -

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.


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