Division of the spoils: the market for medieval books, page by page


Remains of the day … the book was almost complete a few years ago. (Photo: Elaine Treharne)

“Sometime in the fourteen-sixties, a private Christian devotional was produced in northern France. Its pages were expertly calligraphed, embellished with gold leaf, and decorated with sprays of blue acanthus, pheasants, swans, peacocks, and dancing villagers. There were seventeen full-page Biblical illustrations. Its final leaves contained an early owner’s translations of a few Latin prayers into medieval French. Such opulent books of hours became prized collectors’ items among the cognoscenti in later centuries, which may be how this one found its way into the private library of a nineteenth-century British collector named Edward Arnold. By this time, it had received a new morocco binding and its illustrations had been touched up, probably by the artist Caleb William Wing. In the nineteen-twenties, Arnold’s estate sold the book to Sotheby’s; it appeared on the auction block again at a Christie’s sale, in 2010, where it sold for twenty-five thousand pounds (then about forty thousand dollars) to an anonymous bidder.

By the time that Elaine Treharne, a medievalist at Stanford, purchased the manuscript from a colleague for seven hundred dollars, in November, it resembled not so much a book as an old, empty wallet. …”

So begins an article in the current New Yorker, Ben Mauk‘s “Scattered Leaves,” featuring one of our favorite medieval scholars … well, to be frank, we have lots of favorite medieval scholars … who’s on a campaign against the lucrative business of ripping valuable books apart and selling them piece-by-piece.  When she saw the devotional above, “I was almost physically sick,” she said. “I could not believe what I had in front of me.”

Read the story that takes us through auction houses and eBay, university lecture halls, and a gallery owner in Leipzig.  It’s here.


One Response to “Division of the spoils: the market for medieval books, page by page”

  1. Chris Says:

    I find it horrible that our historical treasures can become wasted at the hands of profit oriented collectors who have absolutely no respect for history. Are there any legal ways to do something about it?