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Widener Gutenberg Bible Near Best

Outstanding Specimen In Harvard Scarce Volume Collection


The Gutenberg Bible has long been a magic term among book collectors. As the "first printed book worthy of the name", copies of it have been valued at above $350,000. Harvard has an outstanding Gutenberg Bible among its rare book collection.

The Bible here is a part of the Harry Elkins Widener Collection in Widener Library.

Unlike Widener's personal library which was given to Harvard with the building in 1915, this Gutenberg Bible reached the University only five years ago. Actually the book had never belonged to Widener, although it was in his family at the time of his death during the sinking of the Titanic.

"Bought for Harry"

Widener's grandfather had bought it with the intention of giving it to him, just before the tragedy occurred. After the death of the grandfather, the Bible passed to Widener's uncle, and following the uncle's death Widener's brother and sister sent the Bible to the collection here because it "had been bought for Harry and should be among his books."

Of the 200 Gutenberg Bibles printed between 1454 and 1456 the one in the Widener Collection is among the first ten. All the later copies have 42 lines to a column throughout, while the first since pages of the Widener one have 40 lines to the column.

Experts today assume that Gutenberg made the change after he discovered he was not putting enough material on each page to keep the Bible the size he wanted it.

Today the Widener copy is in excellent condition; one reason is that it was carefully cared for during 300 years of its history in a European monastery.

Its fine state of preservation also results from the handmade linen paper on which it was printed. Experts of the Harvard University Press say that the paper will not fade from its original white for at least another 500 years. Other Gutenberg Bibles, printed on more expensive vellum, have already darkened considerably. The "paper" of the latter is effected by the animal oil in the sheepskin which composes vellum.

In the entire United States there are only nine other complete Gutenberg Bibles while about 30 others were distributed around the rest of the globe before the World War II broke out.

Yale has One

Yale in the only other American university which has a Gutenberg Bible but Harvard officials say that the New Haven copy is not in "quite as fine condition" as the one here. At its last public sale, before Yale was given the copy, that Gutenberg Bible brought $120,000.

No price is set on the Bible in Widener by University officials, for they point out that it "will never be sold."

The Bible in Widener is of value mainly as an exhibition piece, not for scholarly research. Accurate facsimiles, costing about $500 each, are used instead of the few remaining originals whenever a research project is undertaken.

Commenting on the significance of the Gutenberg Bible, William A. Jackson, professor of Bibliography and head of Houghton Library, said that the book remains of great interest today because it achieved enduring perfection so soon after the first work was done on printing.

Jackson added that the most important thing to remember about the Gutenberg Bible was that it avoided any of the primitive characteristics usually soon in a new invention.

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