Tracking down the story of a Gutenberg Bible and a remarkable female collector
New York Times, 24 April 2019:
Whether we’re browsing in an antique store or perusing an auction catalog or walking through a museum, our imagination takes leaps. We are fascinated by the history of objects. We can’t help wondering where these timeworn treasures have been, what human dramas they have witnessed and what stories they could tell.
Margaret Leslie Davis, the author of “The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey,” has tracked down the history of a Gutenberg Bible, composing a lively tale of historical innovation, the thrill of the bibliophile’s hunt, greed and betrayal. For the book’s owners, possessing this rare volume often satisfied a profound emotional longing. “We change the book and it changes us,” Davis writes.
“The Lost Gutenberg” revolves around Doheny’s pursuit of her trophy and what became of it after her death. The author does a loving job of conveying Johann Gutenberg’s spectacular innovation in movable type and the experiments in his workshop in Mainz, Germany. This particular Gutenberg Bible, printed before Aug. 15, 1446, is listed as No. 45, one of fewer than 50 copies that survive. Even fragments of Gutenbergs are highly prized, but this volume has its original calfskin cover and the pages are intact. Its first owner, Davis notes, “had not scrimped on ornamentation. The volume is filled with elaborate, richly colored illuminations” — twisting tendrils and flowers and birds.
Estelle Doheny was an unlikely collector. She had been a 25-year-old telephone operator when her voice enchanted Doheny. The oil man, more than twice her age, sought her out and they married in 1900. During her husband’s decade-long legal ordeal (he was acquitted of bribery, but his reputation was tarnished), she comforted herself by acquiring spiritual texts. The Gutenberg Bible, purchased in 1950, was the jewel of her collection...
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