The rare book dealer Stephan Lowenthiel successfully bid for an eight-page Book of Esther from the Gutenberg Bible earlier this month at Sotheby’s in New York. Against two other bidders, he paid a hammer price of $800,000 for this piece put up for auction by the Jewish Theological Seminary. In London last week, at a conference on preserving mankind’s written heritage, he told me why.
This “Noble Fragment” of eight pages, part of a copy originally from Trier in Germany that was broken up and sold by the dealer Gabriel Wells in the 1920s, may be the last obtainable book of the Old Testament printed by Gutenberg, Fust and Schoeffer in Mainz in the 1450s, Mr Lowenthiel said. More than that, “it’s a book from the greatest of books, something that grabs the heart of everyone who understands.” It’s also the story of the Jewish festival of Purim, “a joyous book,” and one of the rare stories of women’s experience in the Bible. “Esther is standing up to authority and doing the right thing in an ancient world dominated by men.”
Mr Lowentheil knows a bit about doing the right thing himself. He purchased two rare books of Americana in 1998 and sold them to collectors, only to learn in 2013 that they were from a cache stolen from the Swedish National Library over a long period by its then-head of manuscripts, Anders Burius. Mr Lowentheil promptly reacquired the books and handed them back to the library, at considerable personal cost. The vast majority of the stolen volumes have not been found; only six have been returned to Sweden. But to Mr Lowentheil, such volumes aren’t just commodities: they are “irreplaceable pieces of our cultural history.”
Would that all dealers felt, as he does, that rare books are “a vital link in a long chain” of history, and that dealers have a responsibility to safeguard that chain. Mr Lowentheil sees his acquisition of the Gutenberg Bible fragment in the same light. Noting that it sold for $100,000 a page, roughly the same price as single pages that have come on the market in recent years, he said he feared that another purchaser might have been tempted to buy it and sell it piecemeal.
The history here is instructive. Wells wrongly assumed his Gutenberg Bible was incomplete, consisting as it did of the Old Testament alone—so he broke it apart. Decades later, its companion volume was discovered in Belgium. The damage was irreparable. I wrote about what Mr Lowentheil called this “culture of dismemberment” the last time a single page came up for auction. There was a “moral criminality to what Wells did, even though he bought it legitimately,” Mr Lowentheil said. Today, “by keeping Esther together, by putting something together that was taken apart,” he says, “I’m trying to keep the chain together.”
Together with his son Jacob Lowentheil at the19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop in Brooklyn, Mr Lowentheil plans to safeguard this Bible book until he can find it a new home. One that puts Esther’s story into a fresh perspective—not only that of a valuable chunk of the world’s most expensive book.