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

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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 Artsjournal.com. 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.