Selling off rare books and works of art has always been a tempting option for universities short of cash. In the 17th century Oxford's Bodleian library sold off many supposed duplicates including the first Folio of Shakespeare.
Keele's sale of 1,400 mathematical books including editions of Newton and Galileo to the dealer Simon Finch is the latest of many. David McKitterick, librarian of Trinity College, Cambridge, says: "Edinburgh sold off its Audubons and its Goulds - big natural history colour plate books - in order to keep the university funded. Manchester sold its collection of 15th-century prints. It made a lot of money which I think was all ploughed back into the library."
With the internet the market in rare artefacts is going through its greatest upheaval since the 18th-century rise of the great auction houses, and librarians and curators are playing a part.
By putting their catalogues on the internet they are creating a global library that all comers can explore from their desks. It has been not only a bonanza for research but also a gift to dealers.
Even without the internet, powerful tools are available for the rare book hunter. The Directory of Rare Books and Special Collections in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, first published in 1985, had a new edition last year. Also published last year was The Cathedral Libraries Catalogue, the conclusion of a 20-year project. The British Library's English Short-Title Catalogue is the result of another 20-year project. It lists early printed books from more than 1,500 libraries around the world. Those who do not subscribe to its web version can get it on CD-Rom.
Dealers and auction houses know they must get online to survive. Sales will be faster, commissions leaner, and the oligopoly of the big auction houses challenged by new centres of expertise including, perhaps, universities.
United States entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar launched his company auction firm, Ebay, in September 1995. It specialises in person-to-person sales of low-cost items. Last month Ebay was ranked second most popular site in terms of the minutes people spent at it. Ebay and sites such as Ubid and Onsale are eating into classified advertising revenue in US publications.
When The THES visited www.ebay.com last week, 1,5,505 items were for sale in 1,096 categories. In all, more than 46 million items have been offered on the site, and more than 172 million bids have been made.
The company was floated on the Nasdaq stock market last September 24 at a share price of US$18. Soaring to a high of US$321, Ebay was an exceptional performer even against the background of internet stock hysteria.
In the United Kingdom James Corsellis, managing director of Interactive Collector, hopes to emulate Ebay's success. His website (www.icollector.com) began as a shop window for auctioneers and dealers in antiques and collectibles. Buyers avoid the expense of printed catalogues and the effort of leafing through hundreds of them. "Catalogues sell for $5 to $75. We are publishing 4,000 a year," says Corsellis.
Interactive Collector has just completed a trial of online auctions. The site will be relaunched on March 1 for non-stop auctions. Buyers will be able to register their requirements and be emailed when suitable items come in.
The London-based firm is pushing the internet auction concept upmarket.
Buyers need to have confidence in the site and the dealers featured on it, Mr Corsellis believes. "As you move to a product type such as books or art you need an expert to tell you this is not a fake and what it is worth."
About 150 auctioneers, 200 dealers and 60 galleries use the Interactive Collector site. Simon Finch, the dealer who bought the Keele books, was one of them. He has now left, and is thought to be establishing his own e-commerce website. According to Mr Corsellis "he is just the kind of dealer who should do very well online whether with us or with somebody else".
By working with established firms such as Philips and Bonhams he also avoids any worries about the shipping of the goods. Most auctioneers and dealers have this well organised.
On January 19, Sotheby's announced that it would launch an internet auction business, sothebys.com, based in New York. It promised a major internet auction of baseball memorabilia this summer. Christie's said it will offer "property on the web by the second half of 1999".
This is new territory for economics. "Initially (internet) auctions were for goods where pricing and value perished quickly and you already had a reference price for the goods," says James Short, professor of information management at the London Business School.
Examples are computer hardware, software and airline tickets. What Professor Short observes is the arrival of "vendors who have highly specialised goods, which have price floors that are determined by intangibles". Anyone with a Van Gogh or a Newton Principia to sell is likely to go to one of the major auction houses.
"The auction houses are clearly going to manage that so as to maximise the revenue," says Professor Short.
But in more open markets such as the classic car trade, prices are set by a broad community of enthusiasts, not by auction house experts. E-type Jaguars that were changing hands for Pounds 100,000 have now dropped below Pounds 30,000.
Professor Short believes the big auction houses are in danger. Auctioneers use their expertise to determine that the item is what it claims to be, and then to give an opinion on what it is worth.
Universities, museums and libraries have many experts on these subjects. In the opinion of Mr Corsellis, "the Bodleian team is one of the best in the world. The expertise is not concentrated in the commercial sector".
Could universities really match the skills of Sotheby's or Christie's? "The expertise certainly lies there in attribution," Corsellis says. "Whether it lies there in pricing I am not sure."
But if experts really knew what things were worth, auctions would hardly be necessary. The highest bidder has the last word on an object's value. The market can prove the experts wrong.
In any case, there are some items that everyone knows to be valuable. As Professor Short observes, "if it is a Turner you do not need Sotheby's to say it is worth this. You could put it up on the internet and avoid paying the commission."
The real worry is that universities and libraries will undervalue works that are unfashionable and books that are little used.
Dr McKitterick argues that libraries have a duty to acquire and preserve books not just for research or teaching.
"The Cambridge University Library did not go out to collect Austen or Scott when they were published," he says. Libraries continue to make decisions that with hindsight they may regret.