The priceless Gutenberg Bible

by Liz on September 20, 2012 · Rare Religious Books

The Gutenberg Bible

While the most common book ever to be published is the Bible, Bibles from the 1600s and earlier are actually considered quite scarce. They belong in a very elite group that is sought after by very wealthy collectors who are increasingly and unflinchingly pouring large sums of money into liturgical texts.  It is a group which is akin to the French Riviera coastline real estate – there is a very finite quantity of it. One such Book that stands above all else is the Latin Gutenberg Bible, which was printed by Johann Gutenberg & Fust in Mainz in 1455.

According to the Gutenberg Museum, a mere 49 known copies of the Gutenberg Bible, less than half of which are complete copies, exist today. These 49 copies are only a small collection out of a possible 150 copies which were originally printed (120 on paper, 30 on vellum, parchment). Four additional copies have been discovered of the 45 known copies originally counted for in 1950, totaling the 49 copies which we are now aware of. The few complete Books, however, are not regarded as priceless today in the sense of marketable value, as there are currently no copies available for sale. In fact, all of the 21 known complete copies are restrictively owned by prestigious institutions, and have been deemed priceless in the sense that they will not be sold at any immediate time. On the rare occasion that one of these copies is sold, however, they are sold for astronomical amounts. Indeed, the last complete copy to be traded in 1987 was sold for an unabashed $5.4 million. Further records of sale for both whole copies and portions of copies through the decades are listed below:

2007 – A single leaf offered for sale; an A. Edward Newton “Noble Leaf” offering, with Doheny family provenance, exceeded $74,000.00.

1999 – At auction a single leaf sold for $26,000.

1998 – At auction four leaves sold $85,000-the equivalent of 21,250 per page.

1995 – A single leaf containing the Ten Commandments (Exodus, 20:1-17) went to a private party for $75,000.00.

1987 – A complete copy netted around $5.4 million.

1978 – $2.2 million paid for a two-volume Gutenberg.

1926 – In March, eight leaves (the entire Saint Paul Epistle to the Romans) of a Gutenberg from the library of Mrs. Hannah M. Standish were sold at public auction in New York for $1,750. That was the equivalent of $218 per page.

1847 – First Gutenberg Bible brought to the North American continent by the American book collector and philanthropist James Lenox; cost: $2,500; now in the New York Public Library.

 

The importance of this Bible is primarily attributed to the printing master work of Johann Gutenberg, and the gradual shift in his style of printing. The very first pages Gutenberg printed had only 40 lines per column. Later in the course of printing, Gutenberg realized the paper could accommodate 42 lines, so the pages were then reset and printed again in the improved format. The scarce original pages of 40 lines were included in the very first issue of the Gutenberg Bible. Another attractive aspect of Gutenberg’s biblical publications is his very liberal use of ornamentation and decorative symbolism on the pages of his Bibles. Where one may automatically assume that the original fifteenth century versions of the Bible were as dry and solemn as the chanting monks were perceived to be, Gutenberg’s publications are alive with vibrant colored flowers, vines, birds, creatures, and masterful calligraphy.

It is interesting to keep in mind that out of 150 copies to have originally been published, only 49 are currently recognized and brought to our awareness. Where, I wonder, could these remaining copies be in the world, and are most of them destroyed and unintelligible, or are there still, in fact, whole and intact copies buried in the farthest corners of the world, and hidden amongst the innermost shadows of forgotten rooms? Indeed, one may never know if perhaps one of these mysterious lost copies could be stumbled upon in the forsaken attics of our Italian nonas and papas, along with their once beloved wooden spoons and pasta recipes!

 

About the author

Partner, rare book dealer. Sekkes Consultants.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

nihilum April 20, 2013 at 11:24 pm

Can I just say that after finding The priceless Gutenberg Bible on Pluck,
what a delight to see a person who really understands what they’re talking about when it comes to this. You seriously grasp how to bring a problem to light and make it worthwhile. A lot more people must have a look at this and see this perspective. It’s
surprising you’re not more prevalent, since you most certainly have the gift.

Reply

Yoojeong Jeong January 9, 2014 at 2:02 am

Dear ‘Rare Books Digest’ webmaster,

First, I’d like to express my deep respect to your website that is full of valuable contents. My name is Yoojeong Jeong. I am an intern at the Voluntary Agency Network of Korea (VANK) in Korea. VANK (Voluntary Agency Network of Korea) is a cyber-diplomacy organization of 110,000 Korean and international members united under the purpose of properly introducing Korea to the world and promoting cultural exchange through international friendships. Additionally, we work actively to correct misinformation about Korea and share information about interesting cultural heritages, figures, etc. in the 5,000 years of Korea’s history.

With such interest, I researched the contents of movable metal type described in world major text books, websites and encyclopedias. I noticed that one of the most important historical facts was missing in the website. (_______) Therefore, I take this chance to ask you to add extra information.

As the website mentions the movable metal type, I found out that it doesn’t have enough information related to the history of the printing press. Your website needs extra explanation on introducing the Jikji. Jikji is the world’s first book ever printed by the movable metal type made in Goryeo dynasty of Korea. The Korean invented movable metal type printing in 1377, 78 years earlier than the Gutenberg Bible. (Jikji is a Buddhist doctrinal book called as “Jikjisimcheyojeol” or “Jikji” in an abbreviated term.)

Additionally, UNESCO confirmed Jikji as the world’s oldest book printed by the movable metal type and certified Jikji as the Memory of the World. UNESCO also created a special award called ‘Jikji Memory of the World Prize’ to commemorate the inscription of the Buljo jikji simche yojeol – the oldest known book of movable metal print in the world – on the Memory of the World Register, and to contribute to the preservation and accessibility of documentary heritage as a common heritage of humanity. (http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/memory-of-the-world/unescojikji-prize/)

Your website would work as an important role to deliver full history of the printing press and the accurate historical facts to the people who have great interest in world history. It would be our great honor if you introduce the story of the Jikji.

Thank you for your cooperation and we appreciate your favorable consideration. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or comments.

▶ UNESCO Website about Jikji
http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/memory-of-the-world/unescojikji-prize/
▶ Cheongju Early Printing Museum about Jikji
http://www.jikjiworld.net:10000/content/english/jikji/
For further information about Korean printing technology, please visit our Jikji website.
http://korea.prkorea.com/wordpress/

P.S. VANK makes short videos on Jikji constantly. I hope you to see this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSBsdWQ0nng&feature=c4-overview&list=UU8ntMZ29Ii4OfZnDmJaSUpw).

Best regards,
Yoojeong Jeong
Intern at Voluntary Agency Network of Korea (VANK)

Reply

Richard Estes April 12, 2014 at 9:19 pm

There are today 50 copies of the Gutenberg Bible.

Did you know that Johann Gutenberg made 4 editions of Gutenberg Bible. In fact it could have been 6 editions at least!

If you have a question ask me.

Your friend, Richard

Gutenberg Research Center
Director – Richard O. Estes
P O Box 691
Walnut, CA 91788

Reply

JJ November 3, 2015 at 10:53 pm

If I own a leaf from one of the Guttenberg bibles, how would I be able to go about having it appraised

Reply

Admin November 7, 2015 at 11:45 pm

Your best bet is to seek a local specialist or a major auction house.

Reply

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