Archives, Winston Churchill and Auctions

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Archivists who work in “collecting archives” sometimes have a bit of a love/hate relationship with rare book and manuscript auctions. On the one hand they can be a tremendous source of exciting and significant material. On other they may be a drain on scarce funds, and often collections of related material are split into separate lots or even into different auctions in order to make the best profit for the vendor. Frustratingly for the archivist this means you might get some of a collection of papers but not all. Only having part of a collection of course detracts from the usefulness of the collection as a resource for historical research.

What’s a “collecting archives”? –  an archives institution that collects (by donation/bequest, deposit or purchase) archives from the community and organisations. The Hocken Library is one of the larger collecting archives in NZ as well as being a pre-eminent research library and gallery. The other main kind of archival institution is an “in-house archives” which mainly receives archives as transfers from a parent organisation; a local example would be the Dunedin City Council Archives which receives the archives it cares for directly from the Dunedin City Council.

Of course the lay person wanting to find a safe repository for their papers is not usually too concerned with the differences between archives and so it is that sometimes “in-house archives” end up with material that doesn’t really fit their collection scope. Instead of destroying unwanted material that clearly has some historical value, archivists ask around amongst their colleagues as to whether another institution might like to have it. And so it was that a small box of treasure found its way to the Hocken last week from the DCC Archives. What’s this got to do with Winston Churchill?

Well, amongst the items in the box was a minute book and copy of a letter relating to something called a Churchill Auction in 1942 in Dunedin. My curiosity was piqued and I started reading. There were four of these auctions held up and down the country in 1942 to raise funds for the Patriotic Councils.

The idea was started when Prime Minister Peter Fraser visited Winston Churchill in England. Churchill made a gift of a book written by an earlier Sir Winston Churchill and published in 1675, Lives of all the Kings of this Isle, to be auctioned in NZ to raise patriotic funds. Hearing of this gift the writer Pat Lawlor contacted the Department of Internal Affairs and suggested that they encourage local committees to organise local auctions of donated material to augment the funds raised by the sale of the book. People up and down the country were encouraged to donate their rare books, documents, manuscripts, paintings, prints and Maori and historical “curios” to the cause. Messrs J. H. Bethune and Co. Ltd of Wellington provided their entire mailing list so that the central organising committee could contact book, manuscript and picture collectors (no Privacy Act back then!). The Dunedin Committee discussed the idea of collecting letters of Katherine Mansfield and advertising the auction in North America to encourage a better price! I inwardly groaned, wondering what New Zealand archival treasure had been hocked off overseas! Luckily the impracticality of the suggestion precluded advertising overseas and I cannot find any mention of Katherine Mansfield letters being offered for sale.

Minutes of the Dunedin Churchill Auction Committee 1942, a who’s who of arts and culture in Dunedin at the time (r. 5439)

As it turns out the auctions raised some money but not as much as was expected as the market for such items in NZ was not great. In Dunedin over five hundred pounds were raised a newspaper report noted that demand and prices for NZ books in the auction was good but poor for overseas material such as first editions of Dickens. And to my relief it seems that no archives or manuscripts were sold overseas.

Thank you to the Dunedin City Council Archivists, Allison and Chris, for sending this material to the Hocken.

This entry was posted in Acquisitions, Archives and manuscripts, World War II by Anna Blackman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Anna Blackman

I'm Head Curator Archives here at the Hocken Collections and one of my tasks is to maintain this blog.

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