May 19, 2019

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A 500-Year-Old Tale of Intrigue, Greed and Betrayal

A 500-Year-Old Tale of Intrigue, Greed and Betrayal
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THE LOST GUTENBERG
The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey
By Margaret Leslie Davis

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.

She first encountered the Bible while researching her 1998 biography, “Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny.” (He was the California magnate deeply implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal, which shook the Harding administration.) After Doheny’s death in 1935, his widow, Carrie Estelle Doheny, sought to redeem her husband’s name by building a magnificent library at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., stocking it with her collection of rare spiritual tomes.

“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.

Perhaps because of the absence of records, the author omits the first 390 years of the Bible’s existence and picks up the story in 1836, when it begins to make its way around Britain, moving from one Downton Abbey-style castle to another. Possessing such an important religious object might have held out the promise of grace, but time after time the Victorian-era owners of this Gutenberg suffered one misfortune after another — financial reversals, crime and untimely deaths.

The secretive Archibald Acheson, the third Earl of Gosford, found refuge in the family library while his father persisted in a 40-year attempt to build the largest Norman Revival castle in Northern Ireland. The construction of the unfinished 242-room edifice left the family with crippling debt. After Acheson’s death in 1864, his son liquidated the Bible along with the entire collection.

It was acquired by Lord William Tyssen-Amherst of Norfolk, a world traveler who built a notable library of rare books charting the invention of the printed word. His comfortable life was upended when his solicitor embezzled his fortune. In 1908, Amherst’s creditors forced him to auction off his Gutenberg, and he died a broken man six weeks later.

Charles William Dyson Perrins, the lucky buyer, ran two successful businesses: Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce and Royal Worcester Porcelain. But his valiant efforts to keep his factories going during World War II left him in financial straits. In need of money to rebuild, he sacrificed his books, selling his Gutenberg in 1947 to a dealer.

[ To shore up his porcelain company after World War II, the collector C.W. Dyson Perrins parted with many of his books. ]

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, which she left to St. John’s Seminary upon her death in 1958.

In her bequest, she insisted that nothing be sold for 25 years, in the belief that future librarians should have flexibility but would keep the collection intact. It was a tragic mistake. The Los Angeles Archdiocese, unable to resist monetizing the valuable assets, put the entire Doheny book collection on sale in 1987. The Maruzen Co. Ltd. of Tokyo snapped up the Gutenberg for $5.4 million. It is now the property of Keio University, where it has been digitized and locked away from public view.



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