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Interested in having your own piece of the Middle Ages? Here is a guide to buying medieval manuscripts.
While one might believe that all the books created during the Middle Ages are locked up in archives and libraries, there is actually a large amount of medieval manuscripts for sale. However, it is expensive getting into the medieval manuscript market, with prices starting at $10,000 (US) and going up into the millions.
The cost of a medieval manuscript will depend on a few factors – how old is it, its physical condition, how much is known about who made it and where, and the amount and quality of its illustrations. Manuscripts that are illuminated will likely be valued several times higher than a similar manuscript that is entirely text.
The content of the medieval manuscript can also be important – many surviving works are Books of Hours, but you can also find psalters, chronicles, notarial records or many other kinds of documents.
While forgery and fraud can be a problem in the general art world, Sandra Hindman, founder of the the Paris-based Les Enluminures, explains to Our Site that this is usually not an issue for medieval manuscripts. “Apart from the Spanish Forger, who is a well-known, easily recognizable, and extensively catalogued artist (and collectible in his own right) fakes and forgeries is not a problem in the medieval manuscript market. However, I do think most buyers should pay close attention to the descriptions they receive. What you want as a buyer of a manuscript (full book) is a good description of its physical content (is it complete, when does the binding date, what is its condition) and a reasonable assessment of the artistry (who painted it, how secure is the attribution, how do we know). Only specialized dealers are usually able to supply this sort of information.”
One can find medieval manuscripts for sale from just a handful of major dealers – generally they can provide a lot of guidance and knowledge about the market for medieval manuscripts. They include:
Les Enluminures – based in Paris, New York and Chicago, they also have special websites dedicated to those interested in Books of Hours and in manuscripts just with text.
Jörn Günther Rare Books – based in Switzerland, they were founded in 1990 and focus on medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, miniatures and early printed books.
Antiquariat Bibermühle AG – also based in Switzerland, this company is owned by Heribert Tenschert. They produce a series of catalogues that detail the manuscripts currently available.
Sam Fogg – this London-based dealer actually sells a wide variety of medieval art, including sculptures and stained glass. In addition to European medieval manuscripts, they are also sell manuscripts from the Middle East and Asia.
Buying at Auction
Major auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s will occasionally have sales that include medieval manuscripts. While the media often focus on the most expensive of these items, these sales usually offer a large number of more affordable manuscripts. For example, at a recent auction at Sotheby’s this late-15th century Book of Hours sold for £5,000.
Taking part in auction will involve a registration process, but one does not normally have to show up in-person to place a bid on an item, as these companies offer online and telephone services as well.
Buying Pieces of a Manuscript
The recent article Broken Manuscripts and Scattered Leaves in The New Yorker highlights one of the major issues in the medieval manuscript market – taking apart complete manuscripts and selling them page by page. There are certain dealers that sell them on their own websites or through eBay. While these practices are legal, many medievalists have raised serious moral issues about selling manuscripts this way, which basically makes it impossible for any research to be done on these works.
In her blog Text Technologies, Elaine Treharne details how she learned that a 15th century Book of Hours was sold at auction in 2010 for £25,000. Since then the manuscript has been dismembered and the pages sold individually for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars each.
The practice of taking apart medieval manuscripts and selling the pages individually has a long history – and in some cases their are items from the Middle Ages where we only have a page or less remaining from the original. However, one should be cautious about buying medieval manuscripts in that way, as it can lead to the destruction of the item. As one commentator puts it: “Would you cut a Picasso in small pieces because you can get more money by selling individual pieces over the whole painting?”
Another option potential buyers might want to consider is buying a facsimile version of a medieval manuscript. Giovanni Scorcioni, who runs the Facsimile Finder website, explains that many people might want to have their own Book of Kells or other famous work, which either will never go on sale or would cost in the millions of dollars. “Here is where a facsimile comes handy,” he says, “because it’s the closest thing you can enjoy to appreciate the art of the original manuscript. Plus, it’s (almost always) affordable and it’s also not so delicate as the original manuscript. You can leaf through your facsimiles as much as you want without worrying too much – of course, one must have appropriate care, especially given the cost, but they’re durable, often printed on paper made to last decades.”
Prices for facsimiles can sell from between $1000 to over $10000, but their is a wide range of book sellers that offer new and used copies. Medieval manuscript facsimiles have been made since the 19th century and are usually done for works with rich illustrations. While the primary market for facsimiles are libraries and researchers, individuals can also purchase them.