International book dealer Simon Finch has applied to export rare mathematics books sold by Keele University, despite assurances to the contrary. The university insists: "We were told the collection would not be split and would be kept in the UK."
It was confirmed this week that Mr Finch, whose identity had not been known until now, applied for an export licence just before Christmas for valuable items from the collection of early manuscripts, donated to Keele by the late civil servant Charles Turner.
The sale has outraged academics and librarians across the country, who have called for a public inquiry into the affair. They are also drawing up a petition to be sent to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport calling on it to prevent the books going abroad.
The collection of about 1,400 items, thought to have been sold for about Pounds 1 million, includes books from Sir Isaac Newton's library and three editions of his Principia.
Keele academics are particularly upset by the nature of the sale, complaining that the university had sold the collection to a book dealer rather than a collector, and had failed to ensure that the books would remain in Britain and would be accessible for scholarly use. They say that the sale was against the wishes of the majority of members of Keele's senate.
David Ingram, former Kent University vice-chancellor who was professor of physics at Keele when the collection was donated, said he had been assured in writing by vice-chancellor Janet Finch that the books would be sold in an "appropriate manner". He said: "The context in which that assurance was given implied that the collection would stay in this country and would still be available to scholars. It is very unfortunate that this does not seem to be the case." However, in a letter to The THES this week, Keele said "there was never any suggestion that the material could be accessed after the sale".
As well as Mr Finch, bookdealers Robert Downie of Whitchurch, Shropshire, and Daniel McDowell of Presteigne, have been associated with the sale, although their precise involvement has not been clarified. Mr Downie is a Keele graduate and his mother completed a history course at the university last year. Mr McDowell declined to comment, and Mr Downie could not be contacted when The THES went to press.
It is understood that the British Library is exploring the possibility that Keele may be in breach of the terms of a grant made to it by the library for cataloguing and conserving the collection. The library, which advises the government on export licence applications, said it had not been consulted in advance of the sale, despite the fact that the collection "represented one of the most important research resources in its field outside London".
A Keele spokesman said the university had no further comment to make on the sale. Mr Finch also declined to comment.