Wednesday, November 1, 2017

How I saved the Balfour papers!

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. This was, in effect, a statement of support by the UK government for the establishment in Palestine of a home for Jewish people. Such is the historical importance of the Declaration that an original autograph memorandum of the text was sold (along with other papers) in 2005 for the staggering sum of $884,000. Yet, had it not been for me - albeit unwittingly - these papers may never have come into the public domain. In hearsay evidence of this claim, I offer unedited extracts from my diaries.

The Balfour Declaration was contained in a letter, dated 2 November 1917, sent by the UK’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community. It read: ‘His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’ A week after Balfour sent the letter, it was published in newspapers around the world, and support from other nations followed. The Declaration had major long-term consequences, not least in the foundation of Israel.

In 2005, Sotheby’s, New York, put up a surprising lot for sale, Lot 217: ‘Two original drafts of the Balfour Declaration, part of the highly important Zionist Archive of Leon Simon, which also includes a signed letter from Chaim Weizmann asking his colleagues to review the draft, and further documents concerning the formulation of the Balfour Declaration, and of the British Mandate in Palestine.’ The lot also included many handwritten and typed letters, telegrams, essays and memoranda.

In a catalogue note, Sotheby’s explained the context: ‘Foundation documents for the State of Israel including the autograph memorandum of the text which would later be issued, with the war cabinet’s modifications, as the Balfour Declaration, made at the 17 July 1917 meeting of the Zionist Political Committee at the Imperial Hotel, on Hotel stationery, by Leon Simon, a key participant. This was the text sent to Balfour for his approval. If the Declaration of Independence can be viewed as the first formal political step in the foundation of the United States, then the Balfour Declaration can be so viewed in the history of Israel, and the present memorandum is the equivalent of an autograph draft of the text by Thomas Jefferson. Few documents can be owned that are more evocative of the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people for the formation of Israel, or that have had greater political impact on the present-day world.’ The auction house estimated the sale price as between $500,000 and $800,000 - it sold for $884,000.

The two key documents - the autographed memorandum drawn up by Leon Simon and the typed version with hand-written notes - were put on display for the first time earlier this year in a joint exhibition of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) in New York City and the National Museum of Jewish History (NMJH) in Philadelphia - 1917: How One Year Changed the World. ‘This little paragraph on a piece of paper,’ said Rachel Lithgow, director of AJHS in New York, gave ‘a downtrodden people hope after 2,000 years.’ See Smithsonian.com for more on the exhibition. Incidentally, the photographs included in the article of the two drafts are credited ‘courtesy of Martin Franklin’, presumably the current owner of the documents.

The provenance provided by Sotheby’s for lot 217 was that the papers had been ‘purchased from the estate of Miss Aviva Simons [sic]’ (daughter of Leon Simon) - a simple fact that was slightly elaborated in newspapers articles around the world describing the seller as ‘anonymous’. But, thanks to my diaries I can add significant details to that simple fact. This is because I was there, in Aviva Simon’s house sorting out the very books and papers to be sold. After her death, David, one of the trustees or executor (I’m not quite sure which) of her estate engaged Andrew to clear the house while realising as much money as he could from the contents. Andrew, who was a good friend of mine and of David’s daughter, had some considerable experience of dealing in second hand goods. I was at a loose end so volunteered to help him out. For the rest I must defer to my diary.

17 December 2003
‘I’ve been helping Andrew to sort out the mess in a house once owned by Aviva Simon, who died earlier this year. Aviva, a spinster, was the daughter of Sir Leon Simon and Lady Ellen Simon. Sir Simon was Postmaster General for 20 years, he was also a well-known zionist leader and he translated the works of the Zionist leader Ahad Haam. He also wrote a biography of the man. Lady Ellen Simon’s maiden name was Umanski. Her brother, Arthur Umanski, changed his name to Underwood. He was a chemical engineer and something of an academic in the subject too. As far as I can work out, Aviva inherited 154 Hanover Road (near Willesden Green) from her mother, who must have inherited it from her brother. The house, which is an unbelievable tip, contains personal effects belonging not only to Aviva, but also to Leon Simon, Ellen Simon and Underwood. But there is no order to any of the things in the house, and most of everything is hidden inside plastic bags, inside plastic bags, inside plastic bags.

Andrew has been employed by David, who is the father of Offra (who lives in Spain and who I know), who is an executor (although Andrew has been using the word trustee - so I must check on that) of Aviva’s estate. David is related to Aviva somehow, but I’m not clear on that either. Andrew is being paid £120 a day to clear out the house, plus he’ll get 10% of the income he raises from selling the effects. The idea is to try and raise some cash from the belongings, rather than just getting in a house clearance service. So, Andrew is determined to pick through every last plastic bag, every last matchbox, every last tin (there’s a lot of old tins), every last drawer in search of treasures. When he told me about the job, and the 1,000s of books, I volunteered to help.

I went up on Monday. Since he’d arranged for a book dealer friend to come in during the afternoon, our first priority was to try and expose all the books. There was one large room, which Andrew hadn’t yet touched, and so I set to on that one. Although the room, like the rest of the house, was a complete tip (imagine a rubbish dump with 200 plastic bags piled up around old furniture), there were no rats or live insects; and generally everything was clean rather than dirty - although very dusty. So, it was not such a trial to work through everything. Andrew kept hoping to find a holy grail, something worth a lot of money, but I only found things worth a modest amount - a few nice pieces of material, gold fillings, a few old coins. For me, the interest was in the books and the papers. There were so many papers, so many letters and correspondence; every suitcase, every handbag, every drawer, every sturdy file, was crammed with papers of one description or another, from bills to share certificates, to invitations to Simon’s 70th birthday, to discussions about what should be done with Simon’s books. Andrew has little interest in books, or in the papers, he likes the trinkets, the crockery and the paintings. 

Andrew’s friend Piers came and stayed a couple of hours. A day later he phoned through with an offer of £3,000, which was a lot more than I was expecting. Andrew said Piers had found three valuable books - but we don’t know whether that means they’re worth £500 a piece or triple that; nor do we know which books they are. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Piers had invented the three books of value, I mean it might be two or four, and by telling us three he’s guarding against Andrew or I informing any other bookdealer to look for three gems (for if they’re are only two, another dealer might search to midnight and not find the third, or if they’re are four, he might stop looking at number three) - seems a bit paranoid though. I suggested we should get another quote, and I volunteered to organise that. But it was only once I got on the phone that I realised I didn’t have enough information about the collection, and so I wasn’t able to sell it sufficiently to prospective viewers. I have though, in the end, got two people coming. But now I feel I need to get the books into a better order than they are, which means I’ll have to spend the rest of the week there.

Part of the interest for me has been uncovering the family histories and connections, through the letters. It took a while, but I finally worked out that a library in Oxford had already received most of Leon Simon’s books, once in 1993, when his wife died, and more recently when Aviva’s sister, who had a separate lot of her father’s books, donated 600 volumes. I also discovered that Underwood lectured at University College and had an equation named after him!’

23 December 2003
‘I spent more time at the Simon house, on Friday and Saturday. I had arranged for two book dealers to come and offer for the books; but neither of them were interested in making a real effort. One offered £400, and the other didn’t even bother offering once I’d told him we’d had an offer in the thousands (he even assumed it was only £1,000). I realised that the dealers who advertise regularly in yellow pages and the Ham & High are those who are looking for a quick buck, to make a killing, not real dealers prepared to put the time and effort into handling a large quantity of moderately-priced books. I’ve also done some research on the internet, mostly on a site called Biblion, where dealers can advertise their antiquarian books. I found, for example, examples of Picturesque Palestine (four volumes) sells for around £700 in good condition (Piers had signalled that this was one of the valuable books in the collection); and that a couple of books I brought home with me (first editions of a P.G. Wodehouse novel and one of a Bertrand Russel book) might be worth £30-50. In fact, there’s probably 100 or more first editions which could be worth £20 apiece - not to a dealer, but sale price. And I’m sure there’s a dozen or more books that are worth more, plus several hundred more which might be a worth a fiver each. Following my failure to get any higher offers, I expect the books will be sold to Piers. But we still have the problem of what to do with the Judaica (a 1,000 or so books on Jewish history, Palestine, Zionism etc). I’ve contacted a couple of dealers, at least one of whom believes he may have seen the collection some years ago; and I’m also trying to persuade Andrew we should consider auctioning them, but it would cost money to get an auctioneer out to evaluate them. Andrew’s gone out to Spain for Christmas, so the clearance is on hold for a while; I may get back involved to follow through with trying to dispose of the Judaica.’

12 January 2004
‘Went to London yesterday. First to Kensal Rise, to the Simon/Underwood house, to join Andrew and a Jewish expert, Moshe Rosenfeld, to look over the Jewish books. Moshe spent a couple of hours in the house, but he seemed more interested in chatting about general Jewish things, then in really giving us much info on the books. He wasn’t very enthusiastic about the collection, largely because of its strong Zionist focus, but, later, when he went to have another look at the books, he kept looking at individual volumes and saying they might be valuable. I don’t think he knew that much. He said he would talk to a friend of his, a real book dealer, later that day and get back to Andrew. I expect I’ll hear him from him tonight.’

24 January 2004
‘Andrew’s finally decided what to do with the books. He’s selling them to a Jewish dealer for £3,000. This is the same price as his friend Piers offered right at the start, before I interfered and said we should get a Jewish dealer in to look at the Judaica. But Andrew’s happy because the Jewish dealer (Weisse somebody or other, a friend of the Moshe that Andrew and I met a couple of Sundays ago) will take all the books (thus clearing them from the house) and will take them himself, whereas Piers had asked Andrew to bring them up to Suffolk for him. The added benefit of this deal, so Andrew tells me, is that Weisse has not looked at the non-Judaica books, even though he’s included them in his offer of £3,000. Initially, he had offered only £1,700 for the Judaica, but, on being told about the existing bid, he upped his offer to £3,000 for all the books.’

There’s nothing further in my diary about the Simon estate until 18 months later.

30 June 2005
‘On the phone, Andrew told me about the saga of The Balfour Declaration. The package of papers put together for sale at Sothebys in New York on 16 June went for over $800.000. However, Aviva Simon’s estate, for whom Andrew and I did the clearance, has been heavily involved in trying to claw back some of the value. There was an attempt, as I understand it, to bring an injunction to stop the auction, but that didn’t succeed, and then Sotheby’s suggested a 50:50 split between the vendor (Weisman, I think) and the Aviva Simon estate, but the vendor was having none of that. And now there’s a legal battle under way, in which the Aviva Simon estate (relying heavily on Andrew’s testimony and paperwork) is trying to prove that Weisman only bought the Simon books, not the papers - and it’s the papers that made up the Balfour Declaration lot. There were apparently two receipts, one handwritten by Andrew which did not mention papers, and a second, months later asked for by Weisman, typed up and on headed notepaper. For this second receipt, Weisman asked for the list of contents to be changed to include ‘papers’. Or so the story goes. The Aviva Simon estate is concerned about the way Weisman obtained the second receipt. Although it does seem clear that Weisman did know of the Balfour Declaration papers by the time he asked for the second receipt, it’s not clear that he knew they were there when he bought them from us for £3,000. I’m not sure what will happen, but it may be a question of one side calling the bluff of the other. I mean David could ask for a police prosecution, and Weisman might prefer not to have to bother with dealing with that; on the other, David might be told by the police to bog off; or Weisman might be prepared to brazen it out.’

I don’t know how the dispute was ever resolved but, if the story in my diary is collect, it’s clear that a dealer of some description called Weisman (or similar name) bought the materials from the Aviva Simon estate for £3,000. He was astute enough at some point to recognise the importance of the Balfour Declaration papers, and subsequently clever enough to make a lot of money out of them. But, if I hadn’t stalled Andrew from selling them to the first book dealer as I did (with the aim of extracting more value from the books and Judaica in particular) those papers might never have seen the light of day. It’s all too easy to imagine the two scraps of paper in a recycling bin! Moreover - though, this is more speculative - if the estate had followed my suggestion to bring the books and papers to auction itself, it may have realised far more than £3,000, and my friend Andrew’s 10% might have looked like treasure after all.

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