Gordon College’s bid to auction books creates uproar
Descendant, faculty say effort to sell rare Bibles violates donor’s request
When a wealthy family bequeathed a collection of rare Bibles and Shakespeare folios to Gordon College in 1922, it came with a catch: the works had to remain intact and with the school.
That’s why a descendant of the late collector Edward Payson Vining, a railroad executive and bibliophile, was surprised to learn that Gordon plans to auction off 10 percent of the 7,000 volumes this fall. The sale is expected to fetch as much as $2.5 million.
“Wow, I’m shocked, because I know [Vining] would want the books to be there,” said Vining’s great-granddaughter, Sandra Webber, 76, of Nokomis, Fla., who learned of the planned sale from a reporter this week.
The planned sale has stirred unease on Gordon’s Wenham campus, leading some faculty to question the leadership of the college’s president, D. Michael Lindsay, who spearheaded the auction. The administration, they say, left them out of the discussions to sell the works.
“The Vining collection is an example of the larger issue of a breakdown between the faculty and the administration,” said James Trent, a professor of sociology and social work who has worked at the school for 12 years.
The episode is the latest controversy for the Christian liberal arts college, which fell under the national spotlight last summer when Lindsay joined other religious leaders in calling for an exemption to federal workplace protections for gay and transgender workers.
A key donor said he, too, is frustrated with Lindsay and is considering withdrawing his $60 million bequest, a record gift for the school.
“I think most of the problems can be laid on the desk and the shoulders of the CEO,” said Dale E. Fowler, whose grandchildren attend Gordon. In anticipation of the gift from Fowler, the school has named its campus after him..
Administrators said selling a portion of the collection — which some faculty use for research — is the only way to afford to preserve of the rest of the books. A proper facility would cost between $500,000 and $2 million, they say.
The collection lay forgotten in boxes in the Fenwayfor more than 60 years until the school moved them in 1986 to a special facility on its Wenham campus, said professor K. David Goss.
The school desperately needs money to care for the books, though selling any of the collection would be a tragedy, Goss said.
“As long as I’m here, I don’t want to see any of it leave,” he said.
Administrators say they cannot find the original gift bequest but understand that the donor’s wish to keep the collection intact is documented in a 1953 book by then-president Nathan R. Wood.
“Simply put, the college believes the best way to honor the larger intent of this collection . . . is applying the proceeds of the sale of the 10 percent of the collection to preserve and maintain the larger 90 percent,” Gordon spokesman Rick Sweeney said.
Meanwhile, the collection is listed in a full-color advertisement of the auction house Doyle New York. The auction had been scheduled for April, but the college postponed it until the fall for reasons officials declined to state.
A different descendant of the family contacted the school and confirmed the family has no record of the original paperwork and understands the school’s desire to sell some books, Sweeney said.
The collection includes a Ximenes Greek Bible, a first-edition Martin Luther German Bible, and “Up-Biblum God,” a 1663 Bible translated by the Puritan missionary John Eliot into Algonquin, according to Wood’s book.
Some volumes date to the 1400s and are written in ancient dialects from Australia, Southeast Asia, and Mexico, Goss said.
Several other faculty, most of whom did not want to be identified because they fear reprisal from the administration, said administrators rebuffed their attempt to slow the sale and research the terms of the original donation.
Administrators call for dialogue, Trent said, but “the more they call for it the less we do it.”
Sweeney said officials listened to professors’ suggestions, but Gordon’s Board of Trustees felt an auction was the right choice.
Doyle New York and the school declined to estimate the worth of books to be sold. Trent said administrators told faculty in December the works could fetch around $2.5 million.
Faculty speculate that the college has suffered from a drop in donations following the negative publicity last summer, although financial documents are not recent enough to show such a decline.
Administrators said the school is on solid financial footing. It brought in $8.5 million in grants and contributions in fiscal 2014, documents show, up from $5.5 million the year before.
This school year, Gordon has more students than ever, 1,736 compared with 1,707 last year.
Charles Otis, a former Wall Street Journal editor and husband of Vining’s daughter, Annabel, donated the books two years after Vining died in 1920, according to Wood’s book and to Webber, Vining’s great-granddaughter. Vining retired early from his business career to study and collect literature. He could read more than 50 languages.
Webber said she played in Vining’s Cape Cod library as a child but only later understood the books’ significance. A visit to Gordon’s archive is on her bucket list, which is why news of the auction came as even more of a shock.
“I know his collection would not want to be broken up,” she said.