This is awkward. I want to tell you the conclusion of a story, but you don’t know the story.
If you have read my book Random Treasure – Antiques, Auctions and Alchemy, you’ll know quite a bit about the one object in my whole extensive collection or hoard
“that I’d rescue if my house was burning down, an exceptionally rare item of cultural importance, an object which scares the wits out of me to own, but which I wouldn’t sell for worlds”.
But of course you haven’t read Random Treasure, because it hasn’t been published yet, and it won’t be available to be read until about three months after this blog is posted.
I could re-tell the whole story of this object, but have promised myself that I won’t duplicate anything in the Random Treasure blog which can be found in the Random Treasure book. I want the blog to whet your appetite for the book, not to replace it.
So I guess I’ll have to summarise. My most prized object out of all my thousands of objects, the one I could never bear to part with, is a little book. It’s a book of psalms, printed in Edinburgh in 1617 by a remarkable printer-cum-bookseller-cum-bookbinder called Andro Hart. It retains its original incredibly rare early Scottish binding. It is one of only two copies known of this edition, the other being in the National Library of Scotland. My copy is the better one. I bought it at my local Leith auctioneer a few years ago for just £24, but if it came on the market it would probably be worth a thousand or two.
The section of Random Treasure where I describe the Andro Hart psalm book was written more than a year ago. Publishing is a slow business, especially for a first-time writer. I said then that I would never part with it because it was my favourite object, and I meant it. It remained so until the day before yesterday. But not today. Because I don’t have the book any more. I gave it away.
Why would anyone give away their favourite thing? Especially when that thing has a significant market value? It was a tiny book, and didn’t take up much shelf space. It was beautiful and I loved to look at it. It gave me huge satisfaction as an object to contemplate and as a treasured possession. It’s inexplicable why I’d get rid of it, but I’ll try to explain.
A book as delicate and rare and important as this one doesn’t fit into a domestic setting. It has been sitting on a shelf against an external wall which might be subject to rapid changes of temperature and mildew-inducing moisture. I don’t think there are any book-eating insects in my house, but there’s a risk. So are my unruly grandchildren, who like to be whirled at top speed in my revolving desk chair a few inches from the bookshelf. The book is in unrestored condition and needs professional conservation. It should only be handled with cotton gloves. It should be kept in a fire-resistant, temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. It needs to be available for study and especially for detailed comparison with other early Scottish bindings. So keeping it would have been dangerous for the long-term future of the book, and selfish for me.
I could have sold it and made a nice profit. That’s what I usually do with my other random treasures which I designate to the “too-good-to-keep” category. But there was something very personal and emotional about my attachment to this book which led me to the entirely irrational conclusion that selling it was out of the question.
If I couldn’t allow myself to keep it and couldn’t bring myself to sell it, then the remaining option was to give it away. That meant making a small philanthropical gesture, and it didn’t take me long to decide that the beneficiary should be St Andrews University Library. I knew that they have a few other books printed and bound by Andro Hart, and had recently raised funds to purchase another, which was proudly displayed on their website. Since 2017 is the four hundredth anniversary of the printing of my book, it seemed suitable that the donation should be made in this year. And it was also an excellent opportunity for me to mark the fiftieth anniversary of my first matriculation at St Andrews University as a raw undergraduate in 1967.
So I contacted the University Librarian, who was delighted, and who put me on to the Library’s Head of Special Collections, who was also delighted, and a couple of days ago Frances and I drove to St Andrews to hand the book over. They very generously took us out for an excellent lunch, and we returned home minus the book but well satisfied. They have said they will invite us back to see the book when it has been conserved, and I look forward to seeing it again then.
In the meantime, am I bereft? No, I don’t think so. I’m happy that the book will be safe and secure and well-looked-after, and I’ve still got lots of other things in the house to look at and admire and wonder about, and lots of auctions and charity shops to go to in search of more random treasures. I’ll survive.