A historic agricultural college is to sell off a unique collection of more than 3,000 ancient manuscripts amid fears they will be lost to the nation.
The Rothamsted Collection was assembled between the two wars in the 1920s and 1930s by Sir John Russell and contains rare books relating to farming, livestock, landscape gardening and wine.
Sir John had intended Rothamsted, in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, to become a world-leading agricultural research centre but the concept never really took off and the books “became a bit of an anomaly,” one member of staff said.
They have been sitting in the Lawes Agricultural Library gathering dust for decades, viewed only once or twice a year and are expensive to insure and maintain, with many tomes requiring controlled conditions, kept under lock and key.
Peter Oxley, executive director of the Lawes Agricultural Trust, which is home to Rothamsted Research, said: “It has not been seen as something which is of use to us so the sale is a case of utilising an asset.”
Concerns have been expressed that the collection should be maintained for the nation and that once sold to private collectors they will disappear forever from public view.
Mr Oxley said the issue had been considered several times in recent years but that it had been decided that the Trust had its own objectives to fulfill which should be prioritised.
The proceeds will be used to support its charitable activities, which include the provision of accommodation, land and buildings to Rothamsted Research.
The institute is behind trials growing gene-edited super-crops in Britain,which aim to super-charge the plants to produce Omega 3 oils similar to those derived from fish.
Rupert Powell, deputy chairman and head of books at Forum Auctions, said The Rothamsted Collection sale, which takes place over two days next month, had generated a lot of worldwide interest.
“A collection like this does not come to the market too often,” he said. “It contains real curiosities and rarities. Our remit is to make as much money as possible for the vendor.”
The sale contains books featuring the first published illustration of the tobacco plant, the first book devoted exclusively to potatoes, the first agricultural bibliography, the first gardening book for Scottish gardeners, the first bibliography on hunting and the first detailed description in English of wine-making in the Champagne region.
Lot 4, the Augsburg-printed 1471 edition of Crescentiis’ Ruralia Commoda , which is the first printed book on agriculture, is expected to fetch up to £80,000.