Exclusive: Biggest archive of composer manuscripts to be sold

Exclusive: Biggest archive of composer manuscripts to be sold


norman lebrecht

March 22, 2011

A letter has been circulating among the upper echelons of museum donors in New York, informing them that one of the city’s most treasured musical assets is up for sale.

The Robert Owen Lehman collection at the Morgan Library is described on its website as ‘the world’s finest private collection of music manuscripts’. It contains handwritten scores from major composers, starting at Bach, Beethoven and Berg and running down alphabetically to Schubert, Schumann, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky and Webern. In the middle are two Mahler symphonies, the third and ninth (the Morgan also safeguards the second, fifth and Das Lied von der Erde, making it the most important Mahler autograph resource on earth, see here). 
sketch of Mahler’s song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
But all that is about to change. Lehman, a man of advancing years, has notified the Morgan that he is putting the collection up for sale.
The price is US $135 million.
And there are two conditions attached – that the collection is bought intact and that it remains within a public institution. Lehman, I am told, intends to devote the proceeds of the sale ‘to the benefit of music and musicians’. (Bad news, then, for the yacht makers: these are the Lehmans of Lehman Brothers).
The Morgan Library, where the manuscripts have been expertly curated, has expressed an interest in buying them outright and is canvassing its donors for bequests. But in the thick of recession it may not be able to raise the money quickly enough, so foreign buyers are being contacted. 
The likeliest overseas purchaser would be the Paul Sacher foundation in Basel, Switzerland, rolling in pharmacueticals money and already the largest collection of modern scores.
The Austrian National Library would also want to be considered and, where Vienna goes, Munich is seldom far behind.
This could be the music sale of the century – and it would be a massive blow for New York prestige if the Mahlers, Schuberts and Stravinskys all left town on the same liner.


  • Ziggy says:

    With so many Mahler scores in one place, seems to me it would be a great shame for the Lehman mss to leave for Europe. I hope the Morgan can succed, & retain these treasures.

  • BobG says:

    It would be very very sad to lose such a treasure trove, but $135 million is still a lot of money. I hope the Morgan has a billionaire or two in its pockets.

  • Elliott Hurwitt says:

    The Morgan’s actions are depraved and its director ought to be summarily dismissed for this outrage. After building that immense and grotesque expansion of the Morgan, including a wretched concert hall with steps pitched so steep it’s a law suit waiting to happen, now they’re out of money? This is malfeasance, simple malfeasance, and rank incompetence to boot.
    Where is their Board of Directors at a moment like this?

  • william allmart says:

    Perhaps Mr Hurwitt could re-read the article. It isn’t that the Morgan is putting the collection on sale; it is the collection’s owner who is doing so. Morgan has been caretaking the collection. Isn’t it more likely that, after the Lehmann Bros debacle, it is they who are in need of cash?
    And never mind the Stravinskys and even the Mahlers: the value of the Bach items, from the hand of the greatest Western composer of all time (thus far at least!) may actually be the more important, and the greater loss to the New World.

  • AusSteph says:

    Surely, as long the collection remains in the public domain, this is all that really matters to scholars and the music-loving world at large?