British photographic history

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Outcry as Royal Society for Asian Affairs sells off historic books and photographs (UPDATED 2)

The Royal Society for Asian Affairs (RSAA), a registered charity with Royal Charter, with a mission 'to promote greater knowledge and understanding of Central Asia and countries from the Middle East to Japan' and the specific objective 'to conserve all of the Society’s valuable archives, photographic and written' is offering thirteen lots of rare books and early and important photographs at a Sotheby's auction later this month. The lots are expected to realise around £250,000. A number of academics, curators and librarians have mounted a campaign to protest against the sale.

Amongst the photographs being sold are important albums by J C Watson showing China c.1867-1870; John Thomson's Antiquities of Cambodia, c1867; J C White photographs of Sikhim and Tibet and others.The lots can be seen here.

The sale appears to be the result of the RSAA's spending exceeding income since at least 2009, although it does have investments of nearly £300,000. The RSAA's accounts and Charity Commission filings can be viewed here.

This is not the first time that the RSAA has tried to sell part of its historic archive. In 2014 a unique map annotated by T E Lawrence was offered at a Sotheby's auction with an estimate of £70,000-100,000. It was withdrawn soon after news of the sale broke. Read more here.

There have been a number of sales from UK museum and gallery collections as local authorities have attempted to preserve services in the face of government funding cuts. This recently prompted an unprecedented joint statement by ten of the UK's leading funding, membership and museum bodies on unethical sales of public collections. The signatories which include Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund will refuse to work with, or provide grants or funding, to museums whose governing bodies choose to sell items from their collections in contravention of long-standing de-accessioning protocols. 

At the time of writing the RSAA was unavailable for comment and it has been asked for a statement on the forthcoming sale. This will be published here when it is provided. 

Image: From lot 257. Watson, Major J.C., Dr John Dudgeon, John Thomson, (and others?). ALBUM OF PHOTOGRAPHS OF PEKING (BEIJING), NINGPO (NINGBO), AND ENVIRONS. [CHINA, LATE 1860S]. Estimate £40,000 — 60,000

Original post: 8 April 2015 / UPDATED: 18 April

The RSAA issued a statement on 15 April acknowledging 'the deep and understandable concerns' of members and non-members. It added that the sale was essential to ensure the long-term future of the Society and that 'no further sales are envisaged'.

UPDATE 2: 4 May

The sale realised £136,250 (including buyer's premium) and it is likely that the RSAA will net less than £100,000, much less than the exoected £250,000 plus originally expected. 

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