A Gutenberg Bible for sale? Well, not entirely. What Sotheby’s New York will offer next week is an eight-page fragment of the book printed by Johann Gutenberg and Johann Fust in 1455. Single leaves of the famous 42-line Bible occasionally turn up at auction–one recently sold at Swann Galleries for $55,000–but a complete copy hasn’t been seen at auction since 1978, so this sizable section is estimated to make at least $500,000 for its consignor, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City.
The eight consecutive leaves comprise the Book of Esther from the first book printed in the West with movable type, of which only 48 (or 49, according to Sotheby’s) exist in complete or substantially complete condition. This particular set of pages was extracted from an incomplete Gutenberg Bible in 1921 by New York book dealer Gabriel Wells, who sold leaves ($150 each) and sections separately, accompanied by an essay by author and book collector A. Edward Newton, as A Noble Fragment. Banker and book collector Mortimer Schiff purchased this one and donated it to JTS in 1922.
In an email today, a JTS spokesman commented on the sale, “Over the past century, the Library, as part of its core mission, has implemented an acquisitions program to purchase general collections that include the kind of Hebrew and Judaic material that comport with its core mission. As a byproduct of those purchases, the Library has found itself in possession of a number of important non-Hebrew incunabula, Latin Christian works which have a significant and intrinsic value but do not contribute to the Library’s core mission. Because scholars rarely turn to JTS for these non-Hebrew materials, they have lay dormant on library shelves for the 90 years they have been in our collection. It has become clear that these volumes would better serve as scholarly resources in other collections and in keeping with best practices among academic libraries, and after due consideration, The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary has chosen to deaccession these important non-Hebrew incunabula.”
According to the spokesman, the JTS Board of Trustees approved the sale, and “No objections have been raised.” He added, “Any proceeds from the sale will support the ongoing operations of the Library.”
A May 16 article in the Forward stated that JTS has consigned fourteen additional early printed books to the auction as well; the only one specifically noted in the auctioneer’s provenance records is a 1545 Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a gift from famous book dealer, Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach.
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Reprinted with permission from Fine Books & Collections, Rebecca Rego Barry author