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The University of Kent has kick-started a formal petition against the Law Society to prevent the separation of a unique historic collection of manuscripts and books.
The petition, which has gained more than 1,800 signatures in just one week, urges the Society to re-think the break-up and sale of the Mendham Collection, with critics describing it as ‘an act of vandalism’ and a ‘scholarly tragedy’.
On 18 July, the University and Canterbury Cathedral called for support after the Society gave notice of its instruction to Sotheby’s auction house to remove the most valuable items as part of a fundraising drive (18 July 2012).
University director of the centre for medieval and early modern studies Alixe Bovey claimed that the Society gave the university and cathedral just three days to make an offer on the collection.
“It takes time and a significant financial investment to obtain a credible valuation of a collection of this size from a qualified bookseller – there are 5000 items at stake,” she added.
“Given their impossible deadline we weren’t at all confident that the Society was serious about wanting to sell to us, so couldn’t justify making the investment. My hunch is that the Society hopes to make in excess of £1m for the collection.”
In response to the petition, the Society alleges that the offer to purchase the collection was initially raised on 23 April in a meeting and repeated in May. In June and July, three letters were sent repeating both the offer and that the collection would not be sold before 1 November.
A Society spokesperson said: “It should be remembered that the Law Society is a representative body, funded by its members, solicitors in England and Wales. In these challenging times, we can no longer justify the ongoing cost of maintaining the collection, which despite its great value to religious historians does not form part of an archive useful to our members. We owe it to our members in these hard-pressed times to get the very best price that the market can offer.
“Although the Law Society has felt it necessary to proceed with preparations for placing certain items in auction for sale, we have ensured that an auction will not take place before 1 November 2012, allowing the University of Kent and Canterbury to consider purchasing the collection in its entirety.”