Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Broken Book II: From a Book of Hours to a Book of Bits


In 2010, Christie’s sold a beautiful, de luxe Book of Hours that had been made in Northern France in about 1460. It was listed here: http://m.christies.com/sale/lot/sale/22794/lot/5370918/p/1/?KSID=d57c011f180cba461c0aaa27d5b7d989. The book went under the hammer for £25,000 + auction fees and was sold to a trade buyer. Christie’s description demonstrated the significance of the book. It’s important for all kinds of reasons: its artistic qualities are outstanding, as so many extant Books of Hours demonstrate. Foliate decoration embellished with gold leaf enhanced multiple pages; the regularity of the script suggested an accomplished and experienced scribe. Written into the last opening is a set of unpublished fifteenth-century French prayers. Seventeen full-page illuminations will have provided meditative image-space for users of the book. 





Thus, notwithstanding the guesstimated 10,600 surviving Books of Hours, it is a unique and rich witness to private devotional book production at the apogee of the manuscript age. Moreover, in the nineteenth century, when so many antiquarians meddled with manuscripts in ways that varied from vandalistic to fetishistic, this manuscript seems to have been touched up by none other than Caleb William Wing, a famous intervener, who worked for well-known book collectors, such as John Boykett Jarman. Thus, this manuscript, significantly, has quite a bit of its post-facture history and provenance intact, and is a fascinating case study of a book’s life.

And death.

I now own the ‘book’. Or at least, I might be said to own the ‘book’, since I possess the nineteenth-century binding, the pink silk flyleaves with the book’s distinguished provenance, and eleven folios of the original medieval core, including the French prayers. 


The remains of manuscript 615
 
But I do not possess the book and will never be able to reconstruct it. Why? Because it has, since 2010 (the year two thousand and ten), been broken up deliberately and sold (mostly via EBay, I think) piecemeal in an act of shocking and greedy vandalism that I have uncovered in the last two weeks. I should say, too, that I bought the binding and intact leaves from a trusted American book-seller, purchased specifically for teaching and assuming the codex had been fragmented decades ago. He, in turn, had bought the book-shell from a German dealer.

This shattered shell of a book has proven improbably easy to trace. 




It was owned in the nineteenth century by a well-known collector, Edward Arnold, whose ex libris is still in situ on the front, pink endleaf. Edward Arnold’s very substantial collection was sold at major auctions in the 1920s and 1930s. In the Catalogue of Manuscripts Belonging to Edward Arnold (http://www.archive.org/stream/catalogueoflibra00arnoiala/catalogueoflibra00arnoiala_djvu.txt), this book is his number 615, as recorded in pencil on the verso of the second flyleaf.

615. B. M. v., cum Calendario, illuminated MS, on vellum, 252 11. [Flemish 15th century], 17 full-page illuminated miniatures with designed and floriated borders, decorated with angels, birds, fruit, and grotesque figures, over 250 of the pages having beautiful painted leafy borders heightened with gold, with many hundreds of illuminated initial letters, stout small 8vo, modern black morocco extra, with metal clasps, gauffred gilt edges Saec. XV

I don’t yet know who bought this book during these auctions, but the book clearly made its way to Christie’s for their sale in November 2010. Currently, the individual leaves or individual bifolia are being sold on Ebay by the ‘International Art and Antique Gallery’, a shop in Leipzig, owned by ‘kunsthandel’ Chidsanucha Walter e.K (see http://stores.ebay.com/international-art-antique-gallery/Handschriften-Manuscripts-/_i.html?_fsub=3485336017).

This seller has individual leaves listed on EBay in a variety of languages and with no meaningful context provided at all. The miniatures are selling for $2,300 or so; individual leaves for up to $150; bifolia for about $400, depending on the extent of gold leaf or foliate decoration. I am screen-grabbing every folio as it appears in an effort to record 'the book'. And in a crisis mode, I bought two bifolia from the Calendar, plus one leaf with foliate marginal ornamentation, that came up for sale in the week beginning November 11th, so that I can show students how this book would have looked (would have looked, just three years ago). I realize that by purchasing these leaves I am directly contributing to the appalling trade in dismembered books, but these are the only leaves I will buy, despite trying to deal with a feeling of desperation as I watch this book literally fragment online into irrecoverable bits. Buying these leaves has also given me the opportunity to comment publicly on EBay about this particular Leipzig-based seller, so I shall simply be saying that it's a curious thing he has so many leaves from this recently dismembered codex.

I have alerted Christie’s to the history of this book, since they sold it whole. Christie's (and all the rest of the auction-houses) have, I believe, a major responsibility to sell only to those who demonstrate best practice in antiquarian book-dealing (which wouldn't include mutilation or fragementation). I have also spoken to colleagues in the antiquarian book trade. There is more that can be done, I suspect, to stop this myopic and destructive profiteering. I calculate that the person selling the body parts of this book won’t make much more than $20,000 in profit. Is biblioclasm of this scale really worth that?

28 comments:

  1. Well said. It is shocking to see this still going on, and all so easily traced on the web. Jeff

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  2. Looking through the feedback history, I spotted at least 48 sales of what must be fragments of this book, going back to October last year. They're conveniently marked with an inventory number - #A263 - which makes tracking them easy. The last 12 fragments can still be seen pictured on their listings, so you can at least get a glimpse of what they look. Which is a terribly slim consolation...
    /Olov

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    1. Thanks, Olov. There are a number of fragments for sale today. I've screengrabbed all of them.

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  3. This struck an immediate note of recognition! A librarian at my own university spotted the dismemberment of the manuscript, and secured some money to buy as many folios as he could -- I seem to recall that the whole series of transactions played out on Twitter, or something. See the first exhibit listed here:

    http://rarebooks.library.nd.edu/exhibits/previous.shtml

    or here:

    http://medieval.nd.edu/events/2013/02/28/15747-hour-by-hour-reconstructing-a-medieval-breton-prayerbook/

    I was out of town on leave (and still am) when the exhibit took place; but from what I understand, Notre Dame was able to secure and reunite a very substantial portion of this prayer book. Perhaps you should get in touch with David Gura, the librarian behind the repurchase project, if you want more details about the state of the manuscript. All hope is not lost!

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    1. Thanks so much for this. It seems this manuscript at Notre Dame was sold at Sotheby's in 2011, not Christie's in 2010. There's an image of the ND Frag III.i here at Lisa Fagin Davis' Manuscript Roadtrip site: http://manuscriptroadtrip.files.wordpress.com/2013/1/und-mss_frag_iii_1_048r-c.jpg.
      It's not the same manuscript as the one I've described above, but the same issues pertain: of book-breaking and attempts to reconstruct. Perhaps libraries and other repositories with an acquisitions budgets should try and gather leaves, where they can be identified, but again, this might be contributing directly to the market.

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  4. At least I *think* it's the same book. According to a report on a university site, the book sold through Sothebys, not Christies -- but every other detail (date, provenance, fact that it was sold by a dealer in Leipzig over ebay) matches. What do you think - are these the same books?

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    1. Hi. Our replies crossed. No, it's not the same book, but it is interesting that it's a Leipzig dealer in both cases. Thanks ever so.

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    2. You're quite right, and I didn't pay close enough attention to the details of the ND manuscript. But it turns out that the same bookdealer dismembered and sold both your MS, and ND's.

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  5. There are other atrocities. One dealer on Ebay sprays all of his books - whatever the original binding, be it calf, morocco, cloth - with varnish. He then takes photos of them, which show a glossy volume/s, which he then describes as 'beautiful, sleek.' He is a talented dealer, since he sources excellent items, but what he does to them is simply outrageous.

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  6. Saddest of all is that sellers of mss care solely about the money they take in; they could not care less about what happens to their mss once they are sold, unless that somehow effects their finances negatively. Any ideas as to what can be done?

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    1. Hello George.
      I think there are a number of things that can be done. 1) Never buy fragments. I will never buy another. It encourages dealers to break up books. 2) I alerted Christie's and we could take whatever opportunities arise to ask auction houses to "Beware the buyer". 3) There is a law, which Jonathan Sawday's just told me about with which one might be able to threaten these dealers. 4) There's the various professional bodies for booksellers (the ABA, the ABAA), who do condemn the practice, but who might be persuaded to do better self-policing. 5) Where anyone comes across these book-breakers (especially at conferences or EBay or Abebooks), there's plenty of social media opportunities to suggest that those who care about books should avoid purchasing from these particular dealers.

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  7. Thanks for sharing this, Elaine. Incredible that the "empty shell" was even preserved; Ege simply threw away the bindings of the books he broke, discarding bookplates, inscriptions, labels and shelfmarks along with the covers. The book-breaking business is a vicious cycle. Because the cost of a whole codex is prohibitive to just about everyone, buyers want single leaves so they can own a little piece of the Middle Ages. And dealers figured out a long time ago that economies of scale worked in their favor when it came to selling a codex for a few thousand dollars vs. selling 300 leaves for $500 apiece. It is the way of the world; bookdealers are in it for the money, or they wouldn't be bookdealers. The only way to stop the practice is to cut off demand; if no one wants to buy leaves, there will be no incentive to break more books. In addition, there's enough stock out there already to satisfy a world full of collectors without ever breaking up another book. Maybe the ABAA can be persuaded to require leaf-sellers to include some kind of certificate for each leaf they sell, declaring that the dealer was not the one who broke the book. Every dealer will tell you that the book was broken well before they acquired the leaves, of course, but sometimes with a wink and a nudge. I devoted a blogpost to this topic a few weeks ago: http://manuscriptroadtrip.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/manuscript-road-trip-in-otto-eges-footsteps/

    - Lisa

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  8. Thanks for a great, if depressing, post. A few years back I noticed someone selling single leaves at Kalamazoo, which astonished and appalled me. If that booth is still there, we should definitely pressure the ICMS not to allow them. it's just one thing, but it's clear that we need to meet and resist the practice however possible.

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  9. In grad school at Stanford, I took John Henry Merryman's Art Law course (http://www.law.stanford.edu/profile/john-henry-merryman). For it, I wrote an essay arguing that, once we accept the obvious proposition that a manuscript is *a single work of art,* not a bound collection of works of art, it is already *illegal* to divide them up. There are several laws that are relevant here, including international cultural property laws and our own CA Visual Artists Rights Act. I have, ever since, meant to publish it. My plan was to wait for tenure. I now have it. Elaine, you seem (rightly!) quite invested in this. Would you be interested in taking a fresh look at this old essay with me? Might be time to dust it off.... Asa

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  10. A similar conversation going on now on the Exlibris listserve has yielded this among other such policies: http://www.aba.org.uk/the-aba/34-code-of-good-practice
    See section 6 in particular, "Members are committed to the preservation and study of historical materials and should not break complete and intact copies of books or manuscripts. It is recommended that wherever possible members record in identifiable detail and publish in their descriptions all observable marks of prior ownership (including details of binding) in any way illustrative of provenance or origin, as well as maintaining a full and permanent record of all matters relating to the purchase, provenance and subsequent sale of individual items of manifest interest or value."
    I do wonder about the use of "should not" instead of something more demonstrative such as "will not". It seems to be a possible loophole. - Lisa

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  11. Thanks so much for these comments, all. ASM, of course, send the essay for me to have a quick look. Lisa, thanks for all this information. I am in discussion with Jonathan Sawday, too, and will put up a new post later today, pointing readers to these crucial things already in place and making other suggestions. Scott Gwara has just published a new book on Ege: have you seen it? Thank you! More later.

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  12. Happened recently to a Dutch Book of Hours as well: offered for sale at Peter Kiefer's, Pforzheim (Germany) in 2005 and 2006 as a book of 147 ff. Afterwards the codex was dismantled; separate leaves were offered in 2012 by Paulus Swaen, Indian Rocks (Florida), by Griffon's Medieval Manuscripts, St. Petersburg (Florida), and - in good faith - by Célesta Fine Art, Amsterdam (Netherlands).

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  13. Look who's talking. The only way to prevent book sellers chopping up books is NOT buying loose leaves! (Not even "in a crisis mode", and surely not to "show students how it would have looked".)

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  14. There is an excellent history of breaking by Christopher de Hamel called "Cutting up Manuscripts for Fun and Profit" which is written with his usual scholarly humor but is serious about the message that cutting is a perverted activity bent on profit at the cost of aesthetic. I have put back together as much as I could 4 Horae, 1 Choirbook, and one 13th century English Bible. While I understand that such activity may pander to breakers, it also brings a few dismembered pieces back to some semblance of their origins.

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  15. Actually, there is a related problem that must be considered: The bookselling industry is not the slightest bit moved by moral-historical pleas to stop breaking up manuscripts. Additionally, the public will continue to buy little pieces of Olde Bookes. Some of us are in our sixth and seventh decades of life and need to make plans for our collections someday. (I have about 70 manuscripts) I KNOW that if they get onto the open market, they will be broken and sold. Makes me want to donate them to Institutions, but then they are permanently removed from circulation. Does anyone have a similar issue?

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    1. Thanks so much for your helpful responses. I agree that the safest place for manuscripts is an institutional repository, where conditions are generally excellent and access is usually assured. Most repositories will let any legitimate user have access to the books and fragments in their care. I think it's when books are sold to private users that they often (but not always) become hard to see and as for trade, well, that can, as we've seen, be risky for books.

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  16. Scott, if you are concerned with the ongoing preservation of your manuscripts, I think it's your only option. But I don't see donating the books as "permanent removal from circulation," since in a public collection they can be shared by scholars, students, and aficionados alike. Perhaps think about how you would like to see your manuscripts used (teaching, public edification, artistic appreciation, devotion?), and then try to find an institution that can do that for them.

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  17. It occurs to me that it would be good for sellers of such items to attach some sort of legal document prohibiting the subsequent butchery. Sort of the same way land can be sold as a preserve (can't be built on, etc) or as "conservation real estate." There is a little about that on the King Land and ranch real estate page http://www.kinglandwater.com/real_estate.html

    Any lawyers can chime in?

    A second point: more books, as they go to market, could be documented on YouTube, Vimeo, etc., not just in writing. For such an expensive book, there could be more video documentation (I mean the effort economically justified easily), but it isn't that difficult to do a little film. I made a YouTube video recently of a little book from 1906 just using my iPhone. Took me about half an hour to edit it in iMovie, a program which came with my MAC laptop. Last I checked most 15 year olds know how to use it.

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  18. Just to also say, thank you so much for this blog post, especially the detail and the photos.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. I'm trying to gather up all the legal information.

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  19. Wonderful, I look forward to learning more.

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