Sheet from a Gutenberg Bible

Page: Gutenberg Bible
A page from the Gutenberg Bible, specimen from the royal library of Mannheim
Deutsches Buch- und Schriftmuseum der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek Leipzig

Sheet from a Gutenberg Bible

Who cut up the Bible?

Reader: pause a while, for you look – and it may be for the first time – upon an actual page of a Gutenberg bible, the most precious piece of printing in the world, and, admittedly, the earliest. Truly, a noble fragment!

A. Edward Newton, A noble fragment, 1921

This single page from a Gutenberg Bible was bought by the Leipziger Buch- und Schriftmuseum in 1956 in the antique book shop of Menno Hertzberger in Amsterdam as a replacement for the specimen that was brought to Moscow during the war. The puzzle as to the provenance of the page was only solved recently: in the early print phase, one book wasn’t finished yet when it left the printing press. Every specimen of such an early printing, also called incunable, was still rubricated by hand, and book decoration or illumination, chapter numbers and titles were added thus making each one unique. These features made it possible to identify individual pages as belonging to certain specimens of the Gutenberg Bible if their history is still known. In this case, the identification was not all that easy as the accompanying publication had already become lost before the page was sold by Hertzberger.

 However, the specific features of the page show that it is part of the Gutenberg Bible that was initially owned by Maria Elisabeth Augusta von Sulzbach in the 18th century and after that by the royal library of Mannheim. In 1803, it came to the royal court and state library of Munich, where it was auctioned in 1832 as a duplicate. The buyer was English collector Robert Curzon Baron Zouche, in whose family the Bible remained until 1920. In that year, Mary Cecil Frankland, Baroness Zouche, had the copy auctioned at Sotheby’s (Auction Nov. 1920, item 70). It went to Joseph Sabin, who sold it shortly afterwards to antiquarian Gabriel Wells in New York. He increased the chances of the damaged Bible of being sold by separating it into individual pages and putting these back together – each with an essay by A. Edward Newton – to make up a new publication. This resulted in 600 individual pages which he was able to sell in this form. This practice used in the antique book trade is seen with a very critical eye today. Pages of the Mannheim specimen still turn up today for sale and achieve very high prices.