Treasures from princes' library fetch pounds 3.2m: Illustrated medieval manuscripts snapped up in family sale

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The Independent Online
SOTHEBY'S held its most important book auction for 20 years yesterday, offering more than 400 books printed before 1500 from the court library of the Furstenberg princes at Donaueschingen in southern Germany.

A single book from the first decades of printing is a rarity and it is only the libraries of great princely houses that contain early books on this scale. Donaueschingen is one of the last to put its contents on to the market and yesterday's sale earned pounds 3.2m.

A bloodletting calendar for 1462, a vital reference work for any physician, printed on a single sheet of paper, reached the highest price in the sale at pounds 221,500, selling to the New York dealer H P Kraus on behalf of an American collector.

The calendar is the earliest example of printing in Vienna and proves that the imperial capital was the fourth town in Europe to begin printing - it started in Mainz around 1454, reached Strassburg by 1460 and Bamberg by 1461. The calendar had been used as scrap paper in making a later binding.

A tiny block book with coloured illustrations discussing the Art of Dying, printed in south Germany in about 1465, also sold for pounds 221,500 to H P Kraus. Both these top prices had been expected, but the pounds 177,500 that Kraus paid for an illustrated German poem of 1477 came as a surprise; Sotheby's had estimated pounds 30,000- pounds 50,000. The poem deals with the war between German states and the Duke of Burgundy in the 1470s.

There were purchases by many German institutions, including the University of Tubingen, the Franciscan Museum at Villingen, a former monastery, and the city archives of Esslingen, an early printing centre.

The Furstenberg family first became prominent in the 13th century, splitting into many branches, each of which ruled small princely states. The first book collector was Count Wolfgang in the late 15th century, who bought the very first printed books hot off the presses and proudly inscribed his name in them: Diss buch ist Wolffgang grauff zu furstenberg. In the 18th century, several lines of the family having died out, the family libraries were united at Donaueschingen. Prince Joseph Wilhelm built a handsome library for them in the 1750s; the library's holdings were massively extended in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Sotheby's sale reflects the rationalisation of a great court library to match the realities of the 1990s. The Furstenbergs are still rich and powerful, the second largest landowners in Germany. Three of their five castles are open to the public; at Donaueschingen the public can visit their castle, their private museum and their library. Over the last 12 years, however, the early rarities have all been sold.

In 1982, Sotheby's auctioned 20 illuminated manuscripts and 400 printed books on science, natural history and travel. Last year they negotiated the sale of 1,050 medieval manuscripts to the state of Baden-Wurttenberg for DM48m (about pounds 19m), the largest private book sale in history. This year Baden- Wurttenberg was allowed first pick from the incunables (books published before 1500) and bought 85 books for DM2.3m; the rest were sold yesterday.

The court library, in its 18th-century building, is to remain open to the public. It still contains 130,000 books published since 1500.

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