January 7th, 2014
The New Yorker
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. Within its nineteenth-century leather binding and silk flyleaves, only the seven rearmost of the book’s original two hundred and fifty-four leaves remained. Treharne told me that, at first, she wasn’t alarmed by the state of the book, which she had purchased as a teaching aid. The extraction of illustrations, calendars, and other decorative pages from books of hours was common in the early nineteen-hundreds, which is when she assumed the dismantling had taken place.
But she was intrigued by the book’s intact ex libris, which identified Arnold as a former owner. The bookplate led her to an online version of Arnold’s privately printed catalogue; by entering his brief description into Google, she was able to track down the book’s sale lot from its 2010 Christie’s auction. Here she discovered photographs of several of the absent illuminations, a partial ownership history, and a surprising fact: Christie’s had listed the book as “APPARENTLY COMPLETE.” In other words, the devotional had been taken apart—“broken” is the industry term—not a hundred years ago, but within the last three years. Its leaves had been stripped for individual sale by a modern-day dealer.
“I was almost physically sick,” Treharne told me. “I could not believe what I had in front of me.”
The creative dismantling of texts is probably as old as the written word. According to a Cambridge University librarian named Christopher de Hamel, people were recycling pieces of early books even before the invention of the printing press, when pages from old liturgical texts were sometimes repurposed as flyleaves in newly bound manuscripts. Vellum—the treated calfskin that predated paper in Western Europe—was strong and durable, and its uses were once numerous: De Hamel has cited records of vellum cuttings used as wallpaper, gun wadding, drum skins, lampshades, and, according to one, perhaps apocryphal, story, as improvised washers used to repair a fickle Bugatti’s blown gasket.
Art admirers have also dismantled old manuscripts for their lush illustrations. At least one Catholic missal met its end at the hands of the nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin, who claimed to value only a book’s artwork, not the text. By the early twentieth century, a revived interest in book arts and the Middle Ages had created a new wave of well-meaning biblioclasts. The most important of these was an eccentric American medievalist named Otto Ege, who extracted thousands of leaves from his library of manuscripts to sell to middle-class American homes as educational “specimens” of medieval script. By disseminating his private collection, Ege inspired a generation of historians and book lovers; he also popularized book-breaking across the nation. Ege defended the practice in a 1938 article titled “I Am a Biblioclast”:
Surely to allow a thousand people ‘to have and to hold’ an original manuscript leaf, and to get the thrill and understanding that comes only from actual and frequent contact with these art heritages, is justification enough for the scattering of fragments.
Today, a search on eBay turns up hundreds of leaves culled from atlases, Bibles, breviaries, and especially books of hours, which remain the most sought-after manuscripts among casual collectors. Some of these leaves come from books broken decades or even centuries ago. But others are identifiably recent extractions, and may even have been removed by the sellers themselves. Contemporary dealers, however, are far more equivocal about book-breaking than Ege was.
“I’m involved in the preservation of cultural artifacts,” an Oregon-based bookseller named Phillip Pirages told me. “To take a complete book apart goes counter to that.” Yet Pirages does sell individual leaves. Usually, he purchases these in dismembered condition, but in some cases—maybe once every two years, he said—he takes apart a bound book of hours that is already missing ten or more pages. At that point, he said, the illustrations have been removed by a former owner and, unless the book is otherwise exceptional, “all the raisins have been taken out of the cake.” When I mentioned the case of Treharne’s book, Pirages was sympathetic. “I have to admit that selling individual leaves encourages book breaking to some extent,” he said. “From time to time I feel it would be better if I didn’t do this.”
“But for me,” he added, “it’s outweighed by the fact that I have given pleasure to hundreds of people who can afford to pay two hundred dollars to have a vellum leaf from a fifteenth-century prayer book, while there’s no way on earth they could spend fifty thousand dollars to buy the whole book.”
There is another, more practical reason to break books: medieval manuscripts are often worth far less than the sum of their parts. As De Hamel, of Cambridge, explained in a lecture, “Cutting Up Manuscripts for Pleasure and Profit”:
You buy a manuscript for a thousand dollars (for example). You break it in two and each half is worth nine-hundred dollars. You tear it in half again and each quarter is worth eight-hundred; you split it again and each eighth is worth seven-fifty; and so on. You can pursue this Aristotelian abstraction to absurdity, for no fragment is worth nothing, and the coincidental profits will be infinite and can never fail.
There are exceptions to this exaggerated rule—for instance, if a book has a significant provenance, is a historical rarity, or remains in exceptionally pristine condition—but not many. A patient dealer will generally earn the greatest return on his investment not by reselling the book, but by selling, piece by piece, its disjecta membra.
Once Treharne realized that the French devotional had only recently been taken apart, she immediately logged into eBay, the most popular online marketplace for manuscript fragments. Before long, she had found a full-page illustration identical to one in the photographs on the Christie’s page. It was, without a doubt, a piece of her book. Soon, she found more leaves, each identified by the same seller’s inventory number, A263. It was a Leipzig-based dealer operating under the name “International Antique Art Gallery.”
In a panic, Treharne bought two bifolia—pairs of connected leaves—from the book’s liturgical calendar, as well as an illustrated leaf, in the hopes that she might reconstruct the manuscript, at least in part. As soon as she purchased these leaves, more appeared from the same Leipzig outfit. With prices ranging from a hundred and fifty dollars for a single leaf to twenty-three hundred for a miniature, Treharne realized that her reconstructive instinct would bankrupt her. After blogging about her experience and talking with colleagues, she concluded, “I will never buy another fragment.” Doing so, she now argues, only supports the market for broken leaves. (Recently, she noticed that some of the book’s leaves—which had been removed from eBay by the seller—were again available for purchase.)
Not all individual fragments are the products of books as opulent and complete as Treharne’s appears to have been. De Hamel told me in an e-mail that, by his estimate, ninety-nine per cent of today’s dispersed leaves belonged to books that were already “seriously defective” decades ago. A complete manuscript in pristine condition, he said, “is almost never broken up.” Yet it is perfectly legal to break books no matter how complete or rare they are, and it does still happen, particularly in the online, after-auction market. Sometimes it happens to books of considerable scholarly interest, as in the case of a liturgical calendar that David Gura, a curator at the University of Notre Dame, noticed on eBay, in 2012. From the listing, he could see that the cluster of pages came from a book of hours made in Brittany, where few manuscripts are known to have originated. Afraid that the complete calendar—twelve leaves in total—would soon be purchased, split, and sold separately (such secondary and tertiary breaking among dealers is not uncommon), Gura bought it.
“Usually we do not buy single leaves,” he said, referring to a Notre Dame policy shared by many institutions. “In this case, it was a very, very rare calendar, and it was in an effort to keep it from being further dispersed.”
By examining the calendar up close, Gura was able to trace it to a manuscript from the well-known Bergendal collection, parts of which were sold by Sotheby’s, in 2011. The calendar was part of Bergendal manuscript number eight—described by the auction house as complete save for three missing leaves. After locating more leaves online, Gura discovered that other features of the book—specifically its combination of prayers and saints’ days—made it an especially rare find even among existing Breton prayerbooks. Only by looking at different sections side by side did Gura recognize its rarity. If the sections were permanently separated, the book’s full import would be lost on future scholars.
Over the next year, Gura attempted to reconstruct the entire Bergendal manuscript as Sotheby’s had sold it. First, he contacted the dealer who sold him the calendar. Then, he reached out to other people who had bought leaves on eBay and urged them to sell their recent purchases to Notre Dame. (EBay has since made bidder names anonymous; his approach would not work today.) Through a combination of eBay contacts, offline dealers, and auction catalogues, Notre Dame has found and purchased ninety-one of the hundred and twenty-eight leaves that had been bound together at the time of the manuscript’s auction at Sotheby’s, including twenty-one of the thirty full-page illustrations. And Gura’s “salvage work” continues: he recovered five leaves in November.
Gura declined to identify any of the dealers he worked with, in part because antiquarian bookselling is a small world, and librarians who hope to recover broken manuscripts must maintain good relationships. But another reason that many experts refuse to point fingers is that those who sell recently unbound leaves are not necessarily the people doing the book-breaking. A dealer can always claim to have received the leaves in their present condition, or to simply not remember their provenance. (Nicholas Schmidle recently wrote in the magazine about the separate, but related, issue of rare-book forgeries.) Considering the anonymity of many transactions in the art world, there’s no way to be certain where in the process a manuscript has been broken—unless the dealer tells you outright.
Treharne was wary of contacting the Leipzig-based dealership that was selling so many leaves from the French manuscript, though she knew from the eBay account that the owner was a woman named Chidsanucha Walter. When I telephoned and wrote to the address listed on eBay, I received a response from a man named Thomas Walter. A legal professional, he told me that his wife owns the gallery and that he helps run it. In response to my questions about Treharne’s book, Walter sent me a friendly, if daunting, three-thousand-word e-mail in German, in which he detailed his philosophy of bookselling.
The preservation of truly rare books, he argued, is guaranteed by the prices they command. “In my experience, free-market forces in themselves lead to regulation,” he wrote, explaining that the most rare and sumptuous manuscripts are snapped up at auction by museums and large art dealers. The manuscripts that are left to small dealers like him are, by virtue of their availability, less valuable as complete relics. “That which is considered to be not as collectable or worthy of exhibition will, under certain circumstances, be taken apart,” he wrote.
As for the French devotional that ended up in Treharne’s hands, he said that he bought it from Christie’s, in 2010. The book may have been passed over by others at the auction, he said, because the binding had been replaced in the nineteenth-century, and some of the borders and miniatures were cropped in the process.
“This object was not attractive enough for the big dealers and museums,” he wrote, “all of whom could see its auction listing, and who left it to others to purchase.”
“Looking back,” he wrote elsewhere in the e-mail, “I can say that maybe not every book that I split into individual parts should have been split, but it’s an ongoing process of understanding. I try to acquire and sell all of my works whole, but for some objects, it’s clear from the start that they must be split.”
When I asked Walter about Treharne’s specific criticisms, he responded that he has helped create a wider audience for book art by enabling anyone to participate through eBay. “These works of art are now no longer reserved for only an élite group of people (dealers, museums and the rich),” he wrote.
Since the eBay boom in the early aughts, prices for manuscript leaves have stagnated, according to the Danish art scholar Erik Drigsdahl, leaving small dealers under increased pressure to sell more pieces at lower prices. Top-quality leaves are typically sold either at auction or by a small number of major galleries, all of which have trained art historians on staff. Sandra Hindman, who is both an art dealer and professor emerita of art history at Northwestern University—and who owns galleries in Chicago, New York, and Paris—told me that she is one of only a few dealers worldwide who trade at the “highest level” of medieval manuscripts, where individual leaves are sold only after an attempt has been made to thoroughly reconstruct their provenance. But with many leaves of uncertain origin already on the market, there will always be the temptation for some dealers to break apart books.
“Ever since I’ve been doing this, there have been people who break books,” Hindman said. “It’s a battle that can’t be won.”
In a moment of levity at the end of his “Cutting Up Manuscripts” lecture, Christopher de Hamel makes a hypothetical case for book breaking: “If we take the really long-term cosmic view of the world … all manuscripts will be destroyed. Disasters do happen, and works of art suffer.” Since dispersed pieces of manuscripts stand a better chance than complete books of surviving fires, floods, and war, breaking books actually prolongs their survival.
In a parallel spirit of preservation, Erik Drigsdahl has spent the past decade saving the digitized images of leaves sold on eBay. In doing so, he hopes to retain much of the scholarly information that might have been gleaned from the full manuscript. Although his Web site is in need of an update, offline he has catalogued thousands of records of fragmented manuscripts since 2003, building a digital collection that he believes can be linked to more than fifty books that were sold complete at recent auctions. Drigsdahl recalled one seller from the early days of the eBay boom who cut out leaves “with a pair of small manicure scissors,” leaving a choppy seascape of short, curved cuts along one edge.
Manuscriptlink, a free digital archive of manuscript fragments, will launch in the spring of 2014, with forty-seven participating institutions. The co-director Eric Johnson, of Ohio State University, hopes that the virtual library will become the Google Books of medieval manuscripts, though it will, at first, contain mostly fragments housed at universities and museums, and therefore in no danger of dismemberment.
It’s unlikely that these efforts—or others like it—will stop the book-breaking practice, or even do much to discourage it. Once an auction house sells a manuscript, the buyer is free to do whatever he likes with it. “Perhaps with the Internet and the triumph of the Kindle, whole books are a thing of the past anyway, and we will be even more willing to excuse their ready destruction,” Hindman said. “Maybe. But, I hope not.”