We recently received a bulletin from Dr. Jörn Günther, rare book dealer of Hamburg, announcing that he has, among his stock of jaw-dropping medieval manuscripts, a curious little printed trifle: a leaf from a Gutenberg Bible. This leaf comes from an incomplete copy that previously belonged to Maria Elisabeth Augusta von Sulzbach. It eventually made its way to book dealer Gabriel Wells who broke it up, shocking the book world, and sold the individual leaves as “Noble Fragments” in 1921 for prices ranging from $150 to $500. One of Wells’s buyers was A.S.W Rosenbach. As regular readers of the Rosenblog (Dad?) know, the Rosenbach still has that Gutenberg leaf. (We’re not the only ones with a “Noble Fragment.”)
I mentioned the availability of another leaf to our Curator the other day. She suggested we snap it up and begin acquiring one of these famed books leaf by leaf. That strikes me as a capital idea! Has anyone ever attempted to do such a thing? Sure, sure, collectors sophisticate their books, that is, fill in missing pages from other similar copies. There are almost certainly a few sophisticated Gutenberg Bibles out there. But I’m talking about building a whole Gutenberg Bible from the ground up, page by page.
We have a page from Exodus, Chapters XVI-XVIII. Dr. Günther has a page from Numbers. A few years ago, Sotheby’s auctioned off another leaf from the same Sulzbach-Wells copy Günther’s leaf came from. Christie’s sold another one from this copy — complete with an eyebrow hair, perhaps from the brow of the master himself! — in April 2000. Now, let’s not just rebuild the Sulzbach copy. (In its last state it was missing a bunch of pages anyway. Not to mention all those other libraries with leaves from that copy.) Yeah, maybe we’ll have to lean on the remaining stray leaves from that copy a bit , but let’s free ourselves from old-fashioned notions of bibliographical purity, elitist ideas about provenance, and other forms of bookish snobbery, and build an all-inclusive — dare I say ecumenical? — copy of the Gutenberg Bible. Ladies and gentleman, a unique opportunity stands before us! I haven’t checked the censuses, but I doubt another complete copy will ever come up for sale. (Here’s a list of the whereabouts of the forty-some extant copies. The Morgan Library seems to have three — maybe they can spare a leaf or two for our endeavor?) That means that this quixotic little project is all that remains to us of the classic pinnacle of book collecting. Before the sun sets on the world of book collecting as the centuries have known it, let’s try this thing. The naysayers will tell us it’s foolish, impossible, even ignoble, not to mention very expensive. Do not heed them! Instead, simply imagine the bibliophilic glory that will shine on the person (or institution) who takes on this challenge and accomplishes the unthinkable! Your name will resound with the names of the greats: Grolier, Phillips, Cotton, Jefferson, Huntington, Rosenwald. For example, how easy is it simply to wait for a First Folio to come on the market and plunk down, say, £2,800,000 at the sound of the auctioneer’s gavel? Once we have accomplished this feat, auction rooms will become the quaint, safe, enclave of the cowardly collector, the collector who dares not take on a challenge, who shies from a quest as glorious as this one. Let us shock the book world once again! Let us dream the impossible dream! Let us collect the impossible book!
Günther has listed his leaf at €45,000. If my calculations are correct, that’s about $60,000 (my calculations could definitely be wrong). Let’s face it: $60,000 is a lot of money. But I ask you to consider this: as a down payment for eternal glory, for the reverence, for the hushed awe of all collectors ever to follow in your footsteps, ’tis but a trifle, I tell you, a trifle. If your blood stirs, your heart races, and your wallet itches at the mere suggestion of collecting the 643 or so individual leaves of history’s most important printed book, do not hesitate! Join us! Images:1. Binding for Biblia Latina (single leaf)
Mainz: Johann Gutenberg, ca. 1455.
Incun f. 455 b.
2. Gabriel Wells (1862-1946), “A Noble Fragment: Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible”
New York: Gabriel Wells, 1921
Incun f. 455 b.