Canada's archives missed chance at private sale of underpriced maps, manuscripts

OTTAWA – Canada’s cash-strapped national archives may have missed a chance to buy rare maps and manuscripts at bargain prices because years of austerity have severed its special connections with auction houses and private sellers.

That’s the lesson being drawn by senior staff at Library and Archives Canada after the agency paid about three times the pre-sales estimate as winning bidder at a spring auction for the Sherbrooke collection.

The rich bounty of Canadian maps and manuscripts from the early 1800s cost the agency about $720,000, including taxes and shipping. Bonhams, the house that conducted the auction in London on June 19, had estimated the value somewhere between $160,000 and $230,000, plus a buyer’s premium.

Internal documents show that Library and Archives Canada only became aware of the pending auction in May, when Bonhams announced the Sherbrooke collection would headline a larger sale of historical maps, books and manuscripts.

Given only weeks to get organized, the agency went into overdrive, soliciting funds from the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Canadian Heritage and others to put together a war chest for the London auction. The fact the collection highlighted the War of 1812, a favoured theme for the Harper government, appears to have loosened purse strings.

Library and Archives’ own experts quickly determined Bonhams’ valuation was far too low. Drawing on information from previous sales of similar material, archives staff estimated a value of between $776,000 and $873,000.

“Please tell me that we are thinking about asking to have the material withdrawn from auction so that we can negotiate directly with Bonhams/the family?” said one agency official, so as to acquire the collection at “a more controlled price.”

And so the agency made a pre-emptive move: a week before the auction, it wrote to Bonhams offering to buy the Sherbrooke collection privately, for $80,000 to $160,000 more than the highest pre-sale estimate, plus buyer’s premium.

“Should the owner’s counter offer exceed this amount, we remain willing to discuss,” wrote Chantal Marin-Comeau, director general of evaluations and acquisitions, signalling to the owner and Bonhams the unrecognized value of the collection.

The anonymous owner declined Canada’s offer — not unusual in the circumstances of a publicly announced auction, said a Bonhams spokesman.

“It is relatively unusual to receive a pre-sale offer, but when we do receive one we discuss it with the seller involved,” said Matthew Haley, U.K. head of books and manuscripts.

“Almost invariably sellers decide to continue with the auction as planned because that way — especially with unique items — they can feel most confident of achieving a fair market price.”

In the end, the archives bested all other bidders, walking away with some 80 hand-drawn and printed maps, 37 letterbooks, artifacts, correspondence and a portrait of Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, former lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia and Governor General of British North America. They had been held by several generations of Sherbrooke descendants. Many of the hand-drawn maps of early Canada were unknown to scholars.

But even before the gavel cracked, senior officials acknowledged that the agency’s chronic lack of funds for acquisitions over several years had also eroded the ability to network with auction houses and owners of private collections.

“We have needed to rush work and to act in a frantic and reactive way,” archivist Shane McCord said in a June 13 email summarizing some lessons learned. “In previous years, experts in various areas … closely followed auction houses and the wider market for information resources.”

The agency should consider rebuilding connections to “avoid the somewhat rushed circumstances we have faced in recent days.

“And in particular we will be aware of auctions as soon as possible — once we have rebuilt our connections with auction houses this may mean that we will be aware of sales before they are announced to the public.”

Documents related to the purchase of the Sherbrooke collection were obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Some of Library and Archives’ most spectacular acquisitions have avoided auctions by appealing directly to sellers. The agency in 2008 paid $4.5 million for the late Peter Winkworth collection of early Canadian art, for example, by negotiating directly with his family.

The agency also privately purchased the Lord Elgin Papers in 2007 after auction house Sotheby’s estimated the market value for the 1,500 items at $795,000.