Holy Works of Art

By Mike McLeod

Johannes Gutenberg, 15th Century Marketing Guru. Not long ago, illuminated manuscript Bible leaves commanded celestial prices at a Sotheby's auction. An intricately illuminated opening leaf to a Giant Atlantic Bible (Latin) manuscript on vellum from 12th century Tuscany (14" x 17") brought $12,500. An illuminated Paris Bible leaf from the mid-13th century on vellum (6.8" x 10.5") and made of two partial leaves joined vertically sold for more than $3,500.

The artistry and beauty of such pieces-to say nothing of their historical value-are superb, and it is no wonder they fetch such wonderful prices. Meticulously copied by hand, a complete Bible, unadorned, required three years' of the undivided attention of a monk, scholar or scribe. After that, the upper class person purchasing the Bible contracted with an illuminator to draw pictures of foliage, biblical characters, or graphic designs on designated pages. Starting letters of important books were rubricated, and the text could also be bordered in red using a straight edge, quill and red ink. All according to the taste and whims of a wealthy client.

Because of the importance of religion in everyday life, it is no wonder that Johannes Gutenberg chose the Bible as the first book to be printed on his moveable-type printing press. That and the fact that the market was good for Bibles. Johannes was no 15th century marketing dummy. Like Henry Ford and the assembly line, Gutenberg realized the income potential of mass-producing Bibles.

In the three years it took a monk to create just one Bible, Gutenberg printed 180, each with 1,828 pages. If only Gutenberg had also invented IPOs. (As with most innovators, Gutenberg's financial status was precarious most of the time. At one point, a creditor took him to court and he lost his printing equipment and half the Bibles he'd printed. However, there was a happy ending. The Bishop of Mainz recognized the importance of Gutenberg's printing press and appointed him courtier. He also granted Gutenberg 2,180 liters of grain and 2,000 liters of wine per year, allowing him to live comfortably until his death in 1468.)

Another indicator of Gutenberg's marketing savvy-in my opinion-was the fact that he specifically manufactured his typeface to look like handwriting. Now it's possible that Gutenberg just wasn't very creative graphically and couldn't think of any of the hundreds of typefaces available today. However, I believe he intentionally tried to create manuscript Bible look-alikes, thinking they would sell better. (A side note: the clarity and near perfection of the handwriting in manuscript Bibles look as if they were typeset, which made it easier for Gutenberg to copy.)

Today if one of the few Gutenberg Bibles came to market, it would easily sell for $30 million dollars or more, according to John Jeffcoat III, marketing director of www.greatsite.com, an Internet seller of rare bibles. "The last time a Gutenberg Old Testament fragment (not even complete) sold, it commanded over $16 million." At this writing, Greatsite.com is offering a leaf from a Gutenberg Bible for $65,000.

Gutenberg the marketing guru would be very happy.


Word of God, Work of Art

Although acquiring a Gutenberg Bible or a leaf is out of the range of many collectors, early bibles and individual leaves are not.

"You can pick up a 400-year-old page for the cost of taking your family out to a movie," said Mel Meadows, a collector and a vendor on the Ruby Lane website. At this writing, Mel was offering a 1602 small folio (see sidebar, "Bible Definitions") Geneva Bible leaf for sale for $14 and "starter sets" for new collectors with 22 leaves from 22 bibles from 1581 to the late 1700s for $175.

These are not first edition leaves, but they are historically important and very old by American standards. Leaf collecting is an affordable hobby for beginners with unexpected advantages. Some of the text-block pages offered by Mel Meadows are ruled in red from the quill of a paid scribe.

For collectors, printed bibles offer a world of categories and possibilities: bibles printed in America; Indian language bibles; bibles printed in Europe, and foreign language bibles, such as Asian languages, Russian/Slovak, African dialects, etc.

Of the bibles printed in Europe, most were printed in England, which is a benefit to collectors because people tend to want books they can read.

The dates bibles are printed are crucial to their collectibility and value. For bibles printed in England, pre-1650 is the key date. In this category, a few are: the Geneva Bible, King James Version (KJV), Tyndale Bible, Giant Bible, Bishop's Bible, Matthews Bible, Rheims New Testament Bible, and more. For bibles printed in America, the 1700s are the dividing line.

Why is the year 1650 critical to collecting bibles printed in Europe? According to John Jeffcoat, the KJV stayed pretty much in its original form until then. (The KJV purchased today lists the date of 1611 on its title page, but in reality, it was revised in 1769.)

Greatsite.com offers Geneva Bible and King James Version leaves starting at $39. Why so cheap for parts of documents that are older than the Constitution?

"Pre-1650 KJV leaves are not rare," said John Jeffcoat. "They are almost a novelty item. But first edition 1611 KJV leaves are rare and are worth between $300 and $600 each."

Complete pre-1650 bibles are rare. A complete first edition 1611 KJV is valued at $100,000 to $300,000. But prices drop radically after that, and non-first edition KJVs printed after 1611 and before 1650 can be found for sale between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on the size and condition of the text.

Understandably, more partial Bibles have survived the centuries than complete ones. A book seller who buys a partial bible has a couple of uses for it-either it can be sold as individual leaves, or parts of it can be tipped in to repair and complete another partial bible. Mixing and matching parts of bibles may seem almost sacrilegious to new collectors. But for antiquarian sellers, the practice is SOP.

With the KJV, the Geneva Bible and others, only the title pages were changed from year to year. The text itself remained the same, so pages or sections can be tipped in that were printed on the same press by the same person in the same year.

Title pages are also very valuable, running into the hundreds or the thousands of dollars. Mel Meadows has noticed a distinct lack of title pages to the 1611 KJV. "Someone started collecting them a long time ago."
Part of the allure of collecting early Bibles is knowing the history and the sacrifice surrounding these wonderful books. Prior to the KJV, the clergy and royalty fought to keep English translations out of the hands of the common people. Scholars were put to death-often by burning at the stake-for publishing the Bible.

The Geneva Bible was an extremely popular English-language Bible. It was translated and printed in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1560. After Mary Tudor came to the English throne in 1553, she sought to restore Catholicism as the national religion. Christian scholars were persecuted and killed, so many ran for their lives to other parts of Europe. Geneva welcomed many of these scholars, and it was here the Geneva Bible was created.

The Pilgrims carried the Geneva to America, and William Shakespeare quoted from it often in his plays. For 100 years and through 144 printings, it was the principle Bible used by Christians.

A complete first edition Geneva can sell for $16,000 or more.

A few key factors in valuing older bibles-first, shaving. This is where worn edges of pages have been cut off, and it can reduce the value of a bible by 80% to 90%, according to Jeffcoat. Look for the headline at the top of the page. The headline is a sentence that describes the scripture story on that page. If a headline is missing, or if you can only see the bottom of the letters, the page has been shaved.

Second, missing pages. A few missing pages from older Bibles are not critical. They can usually be matched and tipped in by a professional. However, a whole book or section missing is a problem that is very difficult if not impossible to fix.

Third, binding. "You can expect Bibles hundreds of years old to have ratty binding," says Jeffcoat. "You can't expect leather to keep from turning to dust, but it only affects the price by a few hundred dollars. Binding can be replaced. However if the original binding hasn't turned to dust, it commands a premium price."

It is the text block that is important, not the binding.

For Bibles printed in America, those from the 1700s command the highest values. Bibles from the 1800s can be found on the Internet and in shops for as little as $25. Although they may be priceless family heirlooms, the experienced collector knows they were printed in mass quantities, compared to the 5,000 or 6,000 print run of a bible in the 1700s. In addition, 1800s bibles are not first or second edition bibles, and they are printed on wood pulp paper, which degrades relatively quickly.

The early bibles were printed on rag paper or vellum. Before the discovery of wood pulp (which required the use of acid to make it into paper), paper was made from many materials-papyrus, cotton linen, plant fiber, parchment, vellum and cloth rags.

Before Gutenberg in the 15th century, vellum was the paper material of choice. Made from animal skin, it was expensive, but it was also very durable. Pre-pulp paper books are acid-free, so they last. According to Mel Meadows, "At the estate sales overseas, you find three-quarters of the early Bibles in great shape because they were printed on pre-acid paper."

The investment-quality American Bibles were published between 1782 and 1798. The first English language Bible printed here was in 1782 by Robert Aitken. Although small (3" x 5") and ugly (plain, cheap pocket edition with no illustrations), one example has sold for $95,000. The reason for it high value is the Aitken Bible holds the distinction of being the only Bible authorized by Congress-the Continental Congress, that is. It was commissioned as a statement against the Crown during the Revolution, pointedly declaring that the Colonists would print their own Bible in America, despite British orders otherwise.

In 1791, Isaac Collins, a Quaker, printed the first Family Bible. Because the Aitken Bible was so small, families couldn't gather around and read it together. Isaac Collins' Bible rectified this by increasing its size to 8" x 10". It is not a fancy bible, probably owing to Collins' Quaker roots, but it is heralded as a perfect bible. The spelling and accuracy is flawless. There are only two typographical errors, and those are broken punctuation marks. Collins had his children proofread his Bible eleven times before it was printed. The Family Bible was used as a pattern for other Bibles for 110 years.

Other valuable bibles include Isaiah Thomas' illustrated Bible, the 1798 Thompson Hot Press Bible (ink and type were heated and seared into the page), and the 1663 first edition Algonquin Bible, which sold for $400,000.
As always, there are exceptions to the rule about valuable bibles and their publishing dates:

  • The Jane Aitken Bible in 1800-the daughter of Robert Aitken, this was the first Bible printed in America by a woman.
  • The 1833 Noah Webster Bible-it was the first revision of the KJV in America. Its sales bombed, but Noah's dictionary made him rich.
  • The 1841 Hexapala Bible-very valuable; it displays the scriptures in Greek positioned next to six other famous translations.
  • The 1843-1846 Harper Brothers Illuminated Bible-a KJV that is lavishly illustrated.

The Bible has been printed in several Indian languages, including Cree, Sioux, Mohawk, Navajo and Algonquin. Collectors enjoy picking them up, but other than the original Algonquin, they are not investment grade. In addition, bibles in Asian, Slavic, and African languages do not sell well or increase in value.

Many collect the Bible because it is sacred, others for the physical beauty of the page or for its historical importance. But whatever the reason, the Bible has had great appeal for the past 400 years or so.


1648 title page, Vulgate edition, with exquisite illustrations. (Courtesy Mel Meadows)


Manuscript Bibles required three years of work to create. Then an artist illuminated specific pages to make the Bible unique.
(Courtesy Sotheby's)


Johannes Gutenberg


Illuminated manuscript Paris Bible leaf from mid-13th century, $3,500. (Courtesy Sotheby's)


Egyptian Book of the Dead, papyrus. Papyrus was used as paper by the Egyptians from 5000 B.C. until the 9th century A.D.


Geneva Bible leaf, 1583, ruled in red, $14-$39.
(Courtesy Mel Meadows)


1647 title page, Latin.
(Courtesy Mel Meadows)


Gutenberg Bible, King's copy with inset drawing of Solomon. (By permission of The British Library, Kings Library Copy Vol 2 (Solomon) C.9.d.3, 4=1 C.55)


1607 Geneva Bible title leaf ruled in red. Notice the hyphenation.
(Courtesy Mel Meadows)



Folio: a large size Bible, 14 inches in length or larger. A large sheet of paper is printed with two pages of text on the front and the back and then folded before collating and binding. Folios are also known as "pulpit" Bibles because the large size made them easier to read while preaching from the pulpit.
Illumination: the decoration of a Bible after printing with colored foliage or other pictures by artists, or illuminators, contracted by the Bible's owner.
Incunabula: books published between 1455 and 1499, roughly 50 years after Gutenberg's first printing.
Parchment: paper made from the skin of a sheep or goat.
Quarto: the size of a Bible, usually 6 1/2 to 7 inches by 8 1/2 to 9 inches.
Rag Paper: Paper made from cotton or linen. Plant fibers were first used to make paper. After Gutenberg, books proliferated and the need for paper skyrocketed. Vellum was developed, but was very expensive. Early Europeans made paper from recycled cotton and linen which created a great demand for rags, thus the term "rag paper." The demand for paper even outgrew rags, and experiments were made with straw, cabbage, Egyptian mummies and wasps' nests before wood pulp was discovered.
Rubric (or rubrication): A part of a manuscript or book, such as a title, heading, or initial letter, that appears in decorative red lettering or is otherwise distinguished from the rest of the text.
Octavo: a pocket-sized Bible.
Shaving: cutting off the worn edge of pages, greatly reducing the value, by up to 80% to 90%.
Vellum: a fine paper made from untanned animal leather (calf, lamb, or kid), scraped and then smoothed with pumice stone. Also used for binding books. It required the skins of 250-300 sheep to make enough vellum for one manuscript Bible.



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