Cairns Mason, a retired actuary and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and his wife have never set foot in Cincinnati. But they recently became acutely aware of this city because of an auction catalogue they picked up in London, England in mid-June.
They bought the catalogue because its pictures alone were worth having in their ever-expanding library. It was only afterwards, as they perused the lavishly produced text with its full-color illustrations, that they realized the significance of what they were seeing — and became concerned.
The catalogue from Christie's was devoted to a sale of antique and ancient books June 27 and 28 in New York. The venerable auction house was acting for Cincinnati Museum Center, which was selling a collection that came to the Historical Society from Cornelius J. Hauck, heir to a Cincinnati brewery fortune who died in 1967.
Worth a fortune
The collection included remarkable examples of rare books in all forms, including ancient cuneiform tablets; Greek papyri fragments; Persian, Asian, European medieval and Hebrew manuscripts; fine bindings of all periods and a group of book-related curiosities.
These items formed what the Museum Center described as "The History of the Book" — part of a much larger collection that Hauck left to the Historical Society, many of them works of art rather than just books.
The Museum Center had archived and cared for the collection since 1966, but because it had been so little exhibited or researched, it made "sense to offer these magnificent pieces to better-suited institutions and collectors," according to Douglass W. McDonald, president of the Museum Center.
The oldest items in this unique single-owner collection, examples of Mesopotamian cuneiform cones and tablets, were between 3,500 and 4,500 years old.
The most outstanding was an illuminated manuscript called the Album Amicorum, created between 1596 and 1633.
The sale vastly exceeded all expectations. The whole collection netted $10.5 million, more than twice Christie's pre-sale estimate of $4.5 million. The Album Amicorum brought $2.36 million, nearly three times Christie's anticipated $600,000 to $800,000. A Hebrew item, listed at $4,000, attracted a top bid of $300,000, McDonald says. The proceeds will be used for preservation and care of the center's history collections and for future acquisitions relating, he says.
But this might not be the best course of action in the long term, according to Mason, who is an art collector on a modest scale.
"There is a very sad commentary in the text of the trustees saying that this was a collection of the unexpected," he says. "There is an intrinsic value in such a collection if it is not broken up and distributed."
In spite of the money, the sale is an irretrievable loss to this community that, if positioned and promoted properly, might have brought much more to Cincinnati over time than the proceeds of the sale, Mason says.
Mason's wife, Catherine Smith-Mason, a business strategist, cited the example of her home city of Glasgow, Scotland. There, the world-famous Burrell Collection of tapestries, sculptures, architectural fragments, medieval stained glass and other artifacts was considered simply a local asset for the 40 years it was in storage while awaiting the building of a home complying with the will bequeathing the collection to the city.
"But Glasgow had the insight and foresight to position itself on the basis of the Burrell Collection and its other museums as a city with a group of art galleries of international importance," Smith-Mason says. "They were thinking of the city in its entirety and were able to position themselves internationally."
That strategy worked phenomenally. In the 1960s Glasgow's reputation was of industrial grime, decrepit housing and incredible social problems. But because of the city's vision, planning and marketing, in 1990 it was nominated European City of Culture and in 2006, Frommer's travel guides has it listed as one of the 10 must-see destinations in Britain.
Could the unique Hauck Collection have served as the centerpiece in the revitalization and positioning of Cincinnati as a tourist destination? In 2006, 530,000 people have paid about $4 each to see only one book. This happens every year, in Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland, where the Book of Kells, completed around the year 800, is permanently on display.
McDonald says the idea of using a collection such as the Hauck to form the centerpiece of a tourism-focused Cincinnati "raises an interesting point," but his answer to that idea could only be conjecture, whereas the proceeds of the sale allow the Museum Center to do things now they couldn't otherwise have begun to plan.
Hauck's story is definitely "worth preserving, but we can make that argument for hundreds of thousands of objects we have," McDonald says. Ultimately, it comes down to deciding on what is "the best stewardship for the institution," and selling the Hauck book collection was done in that light, he says. The Museum Center's focus is collections of a "broad interest to our community and even nationally. It has a regional history focus and its resources are directed to advancing that mission," he says.
While unable to give details yet of the destination of the contents of the collection, McDonald says some items have gone to other institutions and some to private collectors. The latter may yet end up again in public hands when they are later bequeathed to other museums.
In spite of their regrets at the loss of this previously unnoticed jewel in the Queen City's crown, Mason and his wife express no sour grapes when there's now so much loot in the pot.
"I regret the sale went ahead at all, but I'm delighted they have more money to invest in the Museum Center in Cincinnati," Mason says. "I hope the trustees of the Museum can add sufficient value to the city to justify it." ©