Gutenberg Bible


The World’s Most Expensive Books

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and perhaps that explains why the world’s most famous paintings sell for hundreds of millions of dollars more than the most expensive books. But even so, nothing can capture the insight into the author’s mind like carefully woven words penned in the master’s own hand, and when that master is Leonardo da Vinci – thirty million dollars is a bargain.

1. The Codex Leicester – Leonardo da Vinci. $30.8M (1994).
2. The Gospels of Henry the Lion – $12.4M (1983)
3. The Birds of America – $8.8M (2000)
4. The Canterbury Tales - $7M (1998)
5. The Gutenberg Bible – $5.4M (1987)
6. Traité des Arbres Fruitiers - $4.5M (2006)
7. The Northumberland Bestiary – $5.4M (1987)
8. First Folio: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies – $5.5M (2006)
9. Cosmography – $4.2M (2006)
10. Mozart’s 9 Symphonies Manuscript -  $4.1M (1990)

Cullen Murphy tells Terry Gross about how the invention of the printing press impacted the third Inquisition:

For a long time, the church had had an effective monopoly on the intellectual life in Europe. Publishing was something that involved copying manuscripts. … Suddenly, there’s a new technology on the block. And the church sees this as a threat. So the church sees a combined attack — from the printing press and the Protestant Reformation — [and that] is really the thing that instigates the third Inquisition. … This is the Inquisition that puts Galileo on trial. … It’s the Inquisition that starts the index of forbidden books.

Image of the Gutenberg Bible via

This blockbook Apocalypsis is a favorite item for some NYPL employees working with our incredible special collections. Found in our Rare Books Collection, this blockbook is the only one in the world that still has its original cover as far as we know. It’s an illustrated biblical text for less literate believers and was produced in 1465, ten years after the Gutenberg Bible, using a printing method that required the images and text on every page to be carved separately. Clearly, that technology couldn’t compete with movable type, so blockbooks’ heyday was short-lived. There aren’t many of these kinds of books around 550 years later, but we love that the sloppily painted folkloric pictures are in complete opposition to the sleek Gothic type of the Gutenberg. Plus, dragons and the fiery maw of hell!


In case you missed it… “The Polonsy Foundation Digitization Project, which aims to digitize the collections of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries and the Vatican’s Biblioteca Apostolica, made a virtual version of the Gutenberg Bible available online.”

This epoch-making book was the work of Johann Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468), a goldsmith from Mainz. Printing probably began in 1454, and was completed by March 1455. Fewer than fifty copies survive today, and the Bodleian’s copy is one of only seven complete examples in the British Isles.

And you can view it in stunning detail here!   


Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library | Via

Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is the largest building in the world dedicated to the containment and preservation of rare books, manuscripts, and documents. Completed in 1963 and situated on Yale University’s campus, in New Haven, Connecticut, the library has room for approximately 780,000 volumes. Currently, it holds about 500,000 volumes and several million manuscripts including the original Gutenberg Bible and the mysterious Voynich manuscript, among several others.

Before the construction of the library, rare and valuable books of the Library of Yale College were placed on special shelving at the College Library, now known as Dwight Hall. Later in 1930, when the Sterling Memorial Library was being built, the university created a dedicated reading room for its rare books. As the collection grew, Sterling’s reading room became too small and unsuitable for preservation of the delicate manuscripts, and the need for a larger library was felt.

On this day in 1455 - Johannes Gutenberg prints his first book, the Bible (estimated date). 

The Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible, the Mazarin Bible or the B42) was the first major book printed in the West using movable type. It marked the start of the “Gutenberg Revolution” and the age of the printed book in the West. Forty-eight copies, or substantial portions of copies, survive, and they are considered to be among the most valuable books in the world.


The unexpected story behind our Gutenberg facsimile:

Discerning the provenance of a book may not always be possible by examining marks in the volume itself.  The dutiful researcher must also consult secondary sources whenever they are available, including acquisition records, auction catalogs, and more.  Occasionally, an unexpected source of provenance information may present itself, and when it does, it may reveal something surprising about an item.

Such is the case with our 20th century facsimile edition of the magnificent Gutenberg Bible.

Produced in Leipzig, Germany, in 1913 and 1914, the Insel-Verlag Edition of the Gutenberg Bible is the only complete facsimile of the famous work, first printed in Mainz, Germany, in the 1450s.  

The I-V edition is an excellent attempt to reproduce the original volumes.  Upon acquiring its copy of the facsimile, the University of Illinois had the following to say about the work:

The set is an exact reproduction of the original in type, composition, orthography, paper, illuminations, and even watermarks.  Photo-lithographic methods were used to achieve a perfect replica.  Because of the skilled craftsmanship and great expense involved in this process, book-production experts believe it will be impracticable to again undertake a full facsimile of as large a work as the Gutenberg Bible.

Limited to 300 copies, the facsimile edition is not nearly as valuable as Gutenberg’s original, but it is still a rare item and a magnificent piece of craftsmanship.  

And our Insel-Verlag set comes with an added level of intrigue.  The following excerpt is taken from the facsimile’s acquisition announcement in the Friends of the Library News, from the fall of 1952:

Just before the close of the last fiscal year the Accounting Office unexpectedly credited the Library with a larger balance than we had expected.  The great majority of departments of instruction had already spent out their apportionments and it was necessary for us to spend out our remaining balance immediately.  Just at that moment a certain dealer in art books drove up in his book-wagon with a copy of the magnificent Insel-Verlag Edition of the Gutenberg Bible.  Only 300 copies of this were made.  The dealer had sold one to the University of Illinois last year and had only one more copy, which he had managed to smuggle out of Leipzig hidden under the floor of his car, his access to Leipzig having been achieved by means of a British passport.

The volumes were legally purchased, but apparently the East German authorities weren’t too keen on such books leaving the tightly controlled Soviet satellite.

It just goes to show: every book has a story to tell, and you never know what exactly it’s going to be until you do a little digging.  Sometimes a volume’s life history can be more intriguing than you ever imagined.


the gutenberg bible. princeton university library

William Scheide, a philanthropist who died in November, donated more than 2,500 rare books to his alma mater.

The gift - valued at $300m (£194m) - is the university’s largest to date.

“There are discoveries to be made in every document and volume,” university librarian Karin Trainer said.

The collection also includes the original printing of the US Declaration of Independence and handwritten music by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner.

source: BBC news

This weekend is the final weekend that our Library’s treasures—including Shakespeare’s First Folio—will be on view in the Erburu Wing of the Scott Galleries. One prized item will move over to the Huntington Art Gallery and some others will come back on view this fall. Head over to Verso to get the deets.

caption: Title page of Shakespeare’s First Folio edition, 1623. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.


Treasure Tuesday: Gutenberg’s Invention

For many, the ‘Gutenberg Bible’ represents the revolution of the printing press. It is the first substantial book to be printed in the West using metal type, replacing the more cumbersome woodblocks with fixed lettering.

To print a book using a press you essentially need a raised surface of letters, onto which ink is rolled. The block of letters is then pressed onto paper and the ink transferred, creating a page. Previously, people were carving each individual page out of wood, but the revolution of metal type meant printers could arrange a page of letters and then dismantle them to make another page. The Printing Press is not the real revolution, as it’s just a way of pressing the type and page together. Instead, the actual type was the revolution.

The second item is a souvenir printed on the river Thames after it froze over on Christmas Day in 1739. By this point the printing press had become so common and cheap to use that it wasn’t unusual in the slightest to have one printing souvenirs at a fair.

The river has frozen some 23 times since 1309, but not since 1831.

See more of our Treasures.

Gutenburg Bible: Arch. B b.10, fols. 4v-5r.

Souvenir: JJ Printed on the Ice 1 (22).