Putting a price on history

At 2pm on 15 July, an early medieval treasure will be put up for sale by the famous London auction house, Christie’s. The ninth-century “Theutberga Gospels”, traditionally associated with the Lotharingian queen of that name, are the oldest Latin Gospels in private hands. Last seen in public in 1997 when it was sold by Sotheby’s, the Frankish manuscript is in magnificent condition: creamy white parchment, delicate colouring, astonishing calligraphy. If you’re thinking of putting in a bid, though, you’ll need deep pockets, because the starting price is around €1.5 million, and it will almost certainly fetch much more. So you may have to make do with watching the sale through the auction live feed. But can the manuscript – any manuscript – really be worth that much?

The short answer is of course that things are worth whatever people are prepared to pay in a global market, and judging by past sale prices, antiquities are an excellent choice for the canny investor. But it’s still an interesting question, at a time when monetary value is increasingly prominent in the minds of those concerned with the past, particularly in the UK. To take a few examples: the government is keen for universities to provide indicative salary figures for graduates of every degree programme, so it will be possible (in theory) to measure the value of the skills conferred by a degree in history (while students wonder whether their degrees are good value); cultural organisations are obliged to estimate the financial contribution of the “heritage sector” to the national economy; Margaret Thatcher’s private papers are donated by her family in place of a £1 million tax bill; and middle-aged men dust off their metal-detectors as, in the give-away headline of the UK’s Daily Mail, ‘Amateur treasure hunter finds £1million hoard of 1,000-year-old Anglo Saxon coins’.

Historians may consider that all this has nothing to do them, because the study of the past conducted in universities operates with a different, autonomous value system, or even with no “value” system at all. And it’s certainly true that when applied to historical objects, market value challenges the premise of incommensurability deeply embedded in the discipline of history itself, which like other humanities fields puts a premium on particularity and the importance of context. How can we compare TE Lawrence’s Arab dagger (lot 47) with an autograph of Horatio Nelson (lot 44), or with the 1909 Nobel Peace Prize medal (lot 49)? Yet the absolute value of these things is precisely what will be publicly discovered in London on 15 July. Expressly measuring the remains of the past in terms of the present, every auction is, in this sense, an anachronistic event.

Historians, however, are not totally isolated from this process. Though they may prefer to study the contents of public collections (sometimes originally acquired in decidedly shady circumstances), there is no doubt that these contents would very quickly find a market value – and insurance requirements mean that someone will already have estimated what that value is. Whether they think of it like this or not, historians (and especially medievalists) quite routinely consult items of immense potential monetary value. Admittedly, these public collections are not usually allowed to alienate their property (like the medieval Church) – but that just adds value to the market. It’s the countless manuscripts in public collections that can’t be sold that make so valuable those in private hands that can be.

More than that, though, the value of such objects seldom depends simply on age or aesthetics. As any valuer will tell you, an item that can be associated with a known historical figure is worth far more than an equivalent that cannot. The paradoxical consequence is that being able to situate something in a historical context greatly increases its decontextualised value, measured in cash terms. Even in the absence of historical specifics, objects still acquire their meaning, and thus their value, by being placed in a shared, broad understanding of the human past. Identifying an artefact as, say, Tudor or Wilhelmine presupposes a knowledge of English or German history. This knowledge is by no means the sole preserve of the professional historian – after all, auction houses themselves employ highly-trained experts – but it is nevertheless practising historians whose work does most to underpin it, and to change it. In other words, historians and the historical knowledge they produce are complicit in, and essential for, creating market value, whether or not they benefit from it directly.

In the Middle Ages, educated clerics sometimes complained about the trade in relics, which they dismissed as miserable imitations of those housed in bejewelled shrines to which they had privileged access, or even as a vulgar fetishisation of the elevated, abstract religious practice that they performed. In reality, of course, the two were part of the same system: the monetary value of relics depended on the social and ideological structures that those educated elites worked to maintain. So perhaps historians should not ignore what will happen in Christie’s auction room on 15 July. It has much to tell them about their role and standing in the contemporary world.


Charles West

Charles West is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield.

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