Lot 1
  • 1

Bible. Latin. (Gutenberg Bible: Book of Esther).

500,000 - 700,000 USD
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  • [Mainz: Johann Gutenberg and Johann Fust, 1455]
  • Ink and paper, leather
Royal folio (391 × 282 mm). 8 consecutive leaves: volume I, fos. 272-279 (quire 28, leaves 2-9) of the “Noble Fragment” copy of the Gutenberg Bible, being the entire Book of Esther. 2 columns, 42 lines, Type 1:146(138)G, initial spaces. Handsomely rubricated in red and blue (initial I of Esther in red-blue interlock with pale green ink filigree, headlines of alternate red-blue lombards, chapter numbers of alternate red-blue elements, chapter initials alternately red and blue, red capital strokes, tituli to prologue to Esther, Esther, and first prologue to Job in red textura, following the printed rubrication guide issued with copies of the Gutenberg Bible)
Black morocco binding gilt titled on upper cover (Stikeman), including A. Edward Newton’s accompanying essay, A Noble Fragment, 1921. Edges of leaves slightly red-stained from preceding binding.
Lower margin of fo. 272 replaced, not affecting text. The prologue initials for Esther (272v) and Job (279r) cut out and replaced by facsimiles, with ink facsimiles of the missing text on the other side of each patch; not affecting the Book of Esther.


Unidentified convent or church, perhaps in Hesse — Court Library of Mannheim — Royal Library of Munich — Robert Curzon, 1810-1870, 14th Baron Zouche (from 1870) — Mary Cecil Curzon Frankland, 1877-1965, 17th Baroness Zouche (from 1917), sold via Sotheby’s, 9 November 1920, lot 70 — Frank Sabin — Gabriel Wells, who broke the volume into single leaves and some complete Bible books, presented as “Noble Fragments” - Mortimer Schiff  gift to Jewish Theological Seminary with his ex-libris plate to pastedown.


Goff B-526; Hain 3031*; GW 4201; BMC I 17 (IC.55); BSB-Ink B-408; Bod-inc B-237. Censuses: De Ricci Mayence 34.53 (as “exemplaire disparu” since its 1832 sale by the Munich Royal Library); Schwenke 37; Needham P18; Folter 45


Black morocco binding gilt titled on upper cover (Stikeman), including A. Edward Newton's accompanying essay, A Noble Fragment, 1921. Edges of leaves red-stained from preceding binding; lower margin of fo. 272 replaced, not affecting text.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

First edition of the Bible in Latin, and the first substantial European printed book, produced under a temporary partnership between Johann Gutenberg, inventor of European typography, and Johann Fust, a well-off Mainz lawyer. Production of the edition of more than 640 leaves of Royal folio size presumably took several years and a team of workmen. The humanist Aeneas Sylvius, Latin secretary of Emperor Fredrick III, saw sample sheets of the Bible at the Imperial diet in Frankfurt am Main, in late October or early November 1454, and again at Wiener Neustatt in March 1455, from where he wrote about the amazing production to his friend Cardinal Carvajal in Rome. Copies were printed in separate issues of paper and vellum, in a total edition of 180 copies, and were widely distributed. Some forty-nine copies of varying completeness survive today, as well as a considerable number of leaves of binding waste, particularly of otherwise lost vellum copies. The Gutenberg Bible presented only the black letter text, with calculated spaces left to be filled in by rubricators and illuminators according to the wishes of individual buyers in many different places. Every copy has therefore a different appearance. The matter to be supplied by hand includes headlines, headings for the books, prologues and individual psalms, book initials, chapter initials, chapter numbers, and, often, red strokes through the capital letters. A printed guide of four leaves was supplied with each copy provided the text and layout that rubricators were to follow for the headings in each blank space. The rubricators of most but not all copies followed the wording of the printed guide, which was kept separate from the Bible itself and so ordinarily did not get bound up with its copy. Only two copies of the guide survive. Almost all subsequent printings of the Latin Bible in the fifteenth century and after descend from the Gutenberg Bible as children, grandchildren, and so forth. No incunable had as pervasive a textual influence as the Gutenberg Bible, and even small typographical errors in its setting sometimes persisted for generations in later editions.

At the end of the eighteenth century it became commonly recognized that this black letter large format Bible in double columns of forty-two lines was the true “Gutenberg Bible”, the Bible that Ulrich Zel, in 1499, said had been printed by Johann Gutenberg. Connoisseur collectors, especially in Great Britain and France, were eager to acquire copies, and a strong market developed. In 1803 the Court Library in Munich, following the massive state-ordered dissolutions of Bavarian convents, came into possession of three copies of the Gutenberg: one from the Benedictine convent of Andechs, one from the Augustinian canonry of Rottenbuch, and one from the “Bibliotheca Palatina” of Mannheim on the Rhine, the property of the late Carl Theodor von Sulzbach, 1724-1799, Elector Palatine and, since 1777, Electoral Duke of Bavaria. After Carl Theodor’s death the rarities of his Mannheim library were brought to Munich and incorporated into the Bavarian library.

The monastic dissolutions created large numbers of duplicate copies in the Munich Court Library, and various rounds of duplicate disposal were undertaken. The Mannheim copy of the Gutenberg Bible was considered disposable in view of its imperfections: some fifty text leaves were lacking. In Munich in August 1832 the young traveller and manuscript hunter Robert Curzon, later famous as the author of Visits to Monasteries of the Levant (1849), purchased the Mannheim Gutenberg Bible and several other fine incunables on a visit to the (now) Royal Library. Famous for his collecting of early manuscripts in many languages and scripts, Curzon rarely mentioned his Gutenberg Bible, and few knew of his ownership. After his death his noble title and properties went first to his son Robert (d. 1914), then to his daughter Darea (d.1917), neither of whom had heirs. The Zouche barony and properties passed to Curzon’s great niece Mary Cecil (Curzon) Frankland, who put up the Bible and other rare books at Sotheby’s in November 1920. The Bible was bought by the New York dealer Frank Sabin, from whom it went to another New York dealer, Gabriel Wells. In view of the many already missing leaves (not specified in detail by Sotheby’s), in 1921 Wells decided to sell it leaf by leaf, at $150 a leaf, each accompanied by an enthusiastic essay he commissioned from the Philadelphia collector A. Edward Newton: A Noble Fragment, handsomely designed by Bruce Rogers. The venture was successful and earned him publicity, the New York Times commenting that Wells was “spreading the Gospel among the rich.”

In cases where there were no lacunae, Wells sold complete books. Besides the Book of Esther, preserved whole books include Genesis (University of Illinois), Daniel (Harvard), Gospel of Matthew (Colgate), Apocalypse (Columbia University); and a few others. The Book of Esther is of special interest for the light it throws on Jerome’s editorial method as he dealt with an unusually complicated textual situation.

The Book of Esther in Hebrew is the source text for the festival of Purim, held on 14-15 Adar, celebrating Esther’s heroism in saving the Jews of Persia from annihilation in the reign of Ahasuerus, who was manipulated by an evil councillor, Haman. The principle obligation of Purim is to read the Book of Esther, and there are many individual scrolls of Esther made for this purpose. No action of God is included in the story. In this Hebrew form the Book of Esther has strong resemblances to Greek romances, and its characterizations of Persian society and court have parallels in numerous Greek writings. However, in the Greek Septuagint version of ca. second century B.C.E., there are extensive interpolations to the Hebrew core, increasing the length of the book by more than a third. The fundamental purpose of the interpolations was to add a layer of piety, and of divine actions, to the events of the story: in short, to make it a more obviously religious, and canon-worthy book. This Septuagint version is that known to Josephus, who used it in his story of Esther in Book XI of his Jewish Antiquities.

When Jerome made his translation in the late fourth or early fifth century C.E., he was aware of the considerable differences in both length and tone between the Hebrew and Greek versions. He first translated the “pure” text according to his Hebrew sources, ending at what we now number as the third verse of chapter 10. Following this, he translated in succession all the Greek (Septuagint) interpolations, which in his Vulgate become 10:4-16:24. To each interpolation he prefixed an explanatory note of his source, and of the original position of the verses. There are seven notes in all, including one for a few verses which Jerome had found neither in Hebrew nor in Greek, but only in an archaic Latin version. In the Gutenberg Bible, as in hundreds of preceding manuscript Vulgate Bibles, Jerome’s explanations are written continuously with the Esther text itself, as if they are Biblical verses, and not extra-Biblical. Ideally, a learned rubricator would search these out and mark them in red to separate them from the text of Esther proper, but this happened only rarely, most notably by the rubricator of the vellum copy of the Gutenberg Bible at Göttingen University Library.

These leaves contain also the end of Judith (14:12-16:31), the prologue of St. Jerome to Esther, and the beginning of the first prologue of Jerome to Job.