Every now and then a leaf (a single two-sided page) from the Gutenberg Bible turns up for sale at auction. I was recently asked if I would buy one, if I had the cash. As it happens, I—and the rest of you—have a chance to put that question to the test next week. At New York’s Swann Auction Galleries on Oct 21st, a single page from the Acts of the Apostles printed on paper will be offered for a guide price of between $40,000 and $50,000. (A similar leaf went last year for $55,200). This new leaf (pictured) has two handsome blue and red illuminated initials; I’d dearly love to know from which original copy of the Bible it comes.
The history of these so-called “Noble Fragments” may give us a clue. In the 20th century, two different owners dismembered what they believed to be incomplete copies, and sold them leaf by leaf. The Gutenberg Bible is usually bound in two volumes, sometimes three. The dealer Gabriel Wells took apart a lone Volume II in 1921; Charles Scribners Sons did the same to a different Volume II in 1953, according to the Museum of Biblical Art. There was only one problem. Scribners’ volume was not in fact ‘incomplete’. It had merely been separated by historical misfortune from its companion Volume I, later discovered in Mons, Belgium.
The illumination of the leaf offered in New York differs from both the Wells and Scribners “Noble Fragments,” which MOBIA has reproduced here. Maybe it matches some other copy preserved in part, or one of the 130 or so lost to posterity; sharp incunabulist eyes and search engines will surely know. So much that went missing during the second world war has turned up in recent years, with scholars exchanging news and digital views online.
I’m not a collector, myself. But even if I were, and could afford it, I wouldn’t buy a piece of something that belongs to something else. It’s a little bit like paying ransom: when there’s money to be made, the abductions start.