Do I Hear $135 Million? Lehman Manuscript Collection Preps for the Auction Block

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

New York stands to lose a large swath of one of its most celebrated music manuscript holdings, as the Morgan Library and Museum faces the potential sale of the Robert Owen Lehman Collection. Considered to be among the most important private collections of original manuscripts in the world, the Lehman Collection has been on deposit at the Morgan for over 30 years and features the original handwritten scores of such composers as Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss and Webern.

Following initial reports of the pending sale, the Morgan remained tight-lipped on Tuesday. "It is accurate," said Patrick Milliman, a spokesperson for the museum. "But of course as an institution, we don't comment on these types of things."

In December 2010, the Morgan announced the launch of Music Manuscripts Online, the institution's first foray into digitizing its large collection of musical manuscripts, of which the Lehman Collection has been a significant part.

Milliman could not comment on the extent to which the Lehman Collection would be scanned and included as part of the Morgan's online resource ahead of the sale, although he did note the site's broader development, saying "the scanning is ongoing." He also declined to state when the Lehman collection sale would take place.

So how did this tightly guarded story get out? Letters detailing the pending sale and seeking support for a possible Morgan purchase have hit the doorsteps of New York's deep-pocket donors, according to a report on But foreign buyers, it is feared, may prove more nimble. When was the Morgan's letter sent? "'Recently' is the best way to put it," Milliman said.

The Lehman collection, which began with initial installments by Robert Owen Lehman in 1968, is noted for its French holdings, including works by Debussy and Ravel. The collection now also includes Bach's Cantata 171 (Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm); Brahms's Symphony No. 2; Chopin's Variations on Là ci darem la mano, Op. 2; the short score of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune; the Franck Violin Sonata and the Liszt Piano Sonata, among others. The collection is priced at $135 million.

As more music manuscripts and scores become available online, it is increasingly possible to study an original work from anywhere in the world. New resources such as the International Music Score Library Project are providing scholars with new insights, even as they challenge prevailing copyright laws. Yet, as Emma Dederick, electronic music resources librarian at Indiana University's Cook Music Library, points out-- nothing compares to time with an original.

"The consensus in the library world is that you will need your physical items forever. You see more and more applications of the use of physical items. Technology changes and you have moments where you need to be refreshing your data," Dederick said, adding that data can be lost or corrupted in the process.

Dederick led the University's Variations project for 11 years, which has made approximately 21,700 sound recordings and 750 scores available to students and associates of the University for online search and study. According to Dederick, Variations ranks among the largest such resource of any university in the world.

Dederick recognized, however, that the Morgan collection offers something special, and a sale would likely herald a big loss. "The Morgan manuscripts are among the earliest," Dederick said. "This is such a unique collection. Scanning is pretty good, but it will never be the original." At the same time, Dederick does not shortchange the benefits of emerging online resources.

"It's an incredible plus to make it digital, but I don't think that one thing replaces the other," Dederick said. "To be able to see all these manuscripts in one site, what could be a better luxury than that? For [the Morgan] to be doing this at the manuscript level, that's just fantastic." Since the project's 2007 inception, the Morgan has scanned more than 900 manuscripts containing approximately 42,000 pages, according to the institution's website.

While the extent to which the Morgan is actively scanning the Lehman Collection ahead of its sale is unclear, there is reason to believe this is not the last we've seen of Lehman's massive stash. The collection reportedly must be purchased intact, and must remain within a public institution.


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Comments [8]

Carol Coulthurst

This would be a terrible and irretrivable loss to our country and our place in the world. Please please, someone who can help, please stand up and say "yes" to this opportunity to be patriotic and a music lover.

Mar. 25 2011 09:51 AM
Michael Meltzer

Since classical music is held in higher and more universal regard overseas than in our native U.S., I would speculate that the Lehman collection is a much stronger tourist attraction than we tend to realize. It is certainly an attraction to foreign scholars.
European and Asian guidebooks contain many cultural points of interest totally overlooked by New Yorkers. We may be losing an important, if indirect, source of income for our city.

Mar. 24 2011 07:54 PM
Jerry Frohnhoefer from New York Public radio

I am shiocked that the Morgan library is about to auction off such wonderful original works. I can understand the necessity of scarce resources but for such valuable original works to be a loss to such an institution seems ludicrous. Don't we have some billionaires here in new York who can insure these works stay here? Mayor Bloomberg prides himself on making New York City the hub of tourism. Fortunes have been spent over the years on Times Square's restoration why can't he and hius friends spend more keeping the collection in the library for scholars and those of us who would continue to want to view the originals? Recently according to a New York Times article he is purchasing the failing magazine Business Week to expand his public views and is hiring the "best" editorial writers to promote his thoughts. When asked why would he want to waste $25,000,000 on a filing publication he off handedly replied that such a sum of money for him is in effect "chump change". Let's see what he can do if his heart is really here in new York.

Mar. 24 2011 06:20 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

Perhaps institutions who place their collections online should create "virtual museums" where for a nominal fee, one could search and enjoy their vast collections while supporting the preservation of our past and insuring the artifact's future.

Mar. 23 2011 10:48 PM

I'll throw in $20 if anybody wants to go in together on these.

Mar. 23 2011 09:34 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

Democratic, with a lower case d, is the digitalization of important works for widest possible viewing, and at any hour and venue. As a student at Juilliard, at my perusal were microfilmed and facsimile copies of major masterpieces by composers of every era.
The course was named "Literature and materials" created by George Wedge. Beethoven numerous revisions to create the most "inevitable" flow were to me the most evocative of the whole process of creativity. The accessibility of those major works by Beethoven, Wagner and others was of incalculable value to me.
Modern day scanning and archiving may achieve momentous creativity. Obviously, viewing the original IS nonpareil. All institutions need the finances to survive. Would that we had a government that considered Kultur as valuable and as "powerful" as military might. Not in the lifetime of anyone living today ! I DO hope that I am wrong in that political judgment.

Mar. 23 2011 06:09 AM
Michael Meltzer

Probably the wealthiest community in New York City and most able to help with funding would be the leaders of the real estate industry. The only trouble is that they are quite accustomed to demolishing beautiful or historic architecture to make room for high-risers, so they will need some creative convincing.

Mar. 23 2011 01:47 AM
David from Flushing

From the scholarly viewpoint, it matters not if one examines an original score or a good reproduction of it. Indeed, libraries often prefer that people use a reproduction to preserve the original.

From the museum viewpoint, one can hardly display a reproduction. A photocopy of the Gutenberg Bible does not have quite the same draw as the original.

Of course, the originals have to be kept somewhere, and as a New Yorker, I would prefer that it be here instead of elsewhere.

Recent culture losses for the city include the Faberge eggs from the Forbes Gallery and the "Kindred Spirits" painting from the New York Public Library. I hope the Morgan is successful in its fund raising.

Mar. 22 2011 07:29 PM

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