Sotheby's delays auction to allow campaign to save literary treasures

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Anne, Emily and Charlotte BrontëImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The collection includes seven of Charlotte Bronte's "little books", a collection of poems by Anne, and Emily's notebook of 31 poems

Sotheby's has postponed the auction of a "lost library" of British literature so institutions including the Bronte Parsonage and British Library can try to raise the £15m needed to stop it being bought by a private collector.

The haul includes rare handwritten poems by Emily Brontë, works by Robert Burns and Jane Austen first editions.

The collection recently re-emerged after almost 100 years in obscurity.

Campaigners are "profoundly grateful" to Sotheby's for postponing the sale.

The auction house had initially planned three sales, starting in July, with Bronte's poems expected to fetch between £800,000 and £1.2m, and a first edition of her novel Wuthering Heights between £200,000 and £300,000.

Image source, Sothebys
Image caption,
Emily Brontë's rare handwritten poems are in collection

Estimates also suggested an annotated Brontë family copy of Bewick's History of British Birds - famously referenced in the opening pages of Jane Eyre by Emily's sister Charlotte - could fetch between £30,000-£50,000.

When the sale of the Honresfield Library was announced, the Bronte Society said the "rightful home" for the "unique and extraordinary" manuscripts was the museum in the sisters' former home in Haworth, West Yorkshire.

"Regrettably, we are faced with the very real possibility that this immensely significant collection will be dispersed and disappear into private collections across the globe," the society said.

"We are determined to save as much as we can, but due to the dramatic financial impact of the pandemic, the timing is unfortunate."

Image source, Sothebys
Image caption,
Bewick's History of British Birds was made famous in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

The Honresfield Library, a collection of more than 500 items, also includes a compendium of poems, notes, personal letters and ideas put together by Burns when he was an unknown 24-year-old. The collection was last sold at Sotheby's in 1879 for £10.

Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) has launched an appeal and is in discussion with philanthropists and sources of public funds to raise the cash.

Others in a consortium that is aiming to raise the purchase price include the National Library of Scotland, the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and Jane Austen's House in Hampshire.

They thanked Sotheby's for giving them time to try to "preserve the entire library as a collection to be allocated to libraries around the UK for the benefit of the public".

Other items in the Honresfield Library include:

  • Jane Austen first editions including Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice
  • A copy of Don Quixote printed in 1620 for Shakespeare publisher Edward Blounte
  • An annotated copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poems showing his changes
  • The complete manuscript for Sir Walter Scott's 19th century novel Rob Roy
  • Little-seen letters to and from the likes of novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, Hartley Coleridge (son of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and George Smith - original publisher and champion of the Brontes
  • Works from Homer, Ovid, the Grimm Brothers, Montaigne, Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, Charles Dickens and Mary Wollstonecraft

The library was originally compiled by Rochdale mill owners Alfred and William Law, who were brought up less than 20 miles from Haworth.

The brothers lived at Honresfield House near Rochdale, but the collection disappeared into obscurity after Alfred's son died in 1939.

Dr Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby's English literature and historical manuscripts specialist, said: "Sotheby's has a great history of working together with private collectors and institutions and we are pleased to play our part in this potential outcome for this great library."

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