Classic Literature | 23 March 2016A Rare Find: The $350,000 Family Bible Share article facebook twitter google pinterest Rare book collectors often spend large sums of money to add a special piece to their collections. This hunt typically involves auctions or stores commonly used to acquire collectors’ pieces. But often the most memorable rare book finds happen when you’d least expected them. In Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places by Rebecca Rego Barry, you will learn about some of the best and most serendipitous rare book finds. A Family Bible Worth $350,000 A word of warning, reader: your old family Bible—as gilded and lovely as it may be—is worth neither $350,000 nor even $350. Typically nineteenth-century productions, family Bibles were used to record births, marriages, and deaths, and sometimes temperance oaths. One scholar of Victorian history and culture described their physical characteristics as follows: “Elaborate, leather-tooled covers with religiously inspired gilt decoration . . . held closed by brass clasps and locks.” Many families own one, and because it looks “old” and is bound in leather, owners are apt to assume that it is priceless. But in terms of financial value, family Bibles are the bane of antiquarian booksellers everywhere, perhaps none more so than Justin Croft, a UK-based bookseller who appears regularly on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. “As a bookseller, being asked to come and see a family Bible is possibly one of the least interesting prospects, and in my Antiques Roadshow role, being shown a family Bible triggers a well-rehearsed, polite but firm, chat about sentimental value as opposed to commercial value, et cetera,” he said. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. At a family party in the summer of 2008, Croft was talking with someone he had never met before—a distant cousin, or a cousin by marriage. The man, who wishes to remain anonymous, was intrigued by Croft’s vocation as an antiquarian bookseller and by his work on Antiques Roadshow. “People are curious about that,” said Croft. “They want to know a little bit about how it works and want to give you their tuppence worth of how they think it works. We were having one of those conversations.” They parted ways to mingle, but at the end of the afternoon the relative sought out Croft and declared, “Well, we’ve got an old Bible, if you were ever over our way, would you like to come and have a look at it?” Croft must have cringed. But he fulfilled his obligation to the exchange by replying, “Oh, how interesting!” The man didn’t tell him much else about the volume, and Croft didn’t inquire too deeply. “I didn’t think too much about it,” said Croft. But when the man called Croft’s office a few weeks later and asked him if he was going to come examine the Bible, Croft sighed. “It was like a couple of hours drive away! And they’re not people I know very well,” he said. Still, he added, “I was feeling family-minded and thought, ‘Why not?’ It’s nice to keep in touch with people, and who knows.” The relative mentioned that he also had a room full of books that he wanted Croft’s advice on, knowing that they were not easy sellers: modern biography, early twentieth century reference—“all the kinds of things that, again, a bookseller tries to back away from,” said Croft. Croft undertook the journey and spent the morning reviewing hundreds of “dreadful” books that he suggested could only be sold as box lots at a local auction house. “I had to do my penance, which was a morning looking through the library,” said Croft. Then the Bible was retrieved. “He didn’t make any particular song and dance about it,” said Croft, recalling how the man pulled an oversized box out from under the sofa. It’s important to note that while Croft specializes in books printed before 1850 and his inventory consists primarily of volumes from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, in traditional fields such as history, literature, science and medicine, music, and art, his academic background is in medieval history. His first degrees were in history and archaeology, after which he moved to London and began working as a porter at Phillips Auctioneers. “I was clear that I wanted to work in the arts and antiques trade but wasn’t quite sure where,” he said. But he found his way to Phillips’ rare book department, enlisting as a junior cataloger. Academic life tugged at him, and he returned to university for a master’s degree in medieval and Tudor studies, followed by a PhD, in which he worked principally with medieval manuscripts in Canterbury. He began teaching medieval history to undergraduates but felt that the antiquarian book trade offered a more rewarding future. He spent four or five years with Simon Finch Rare Books before starting out on his own. All of that goes a way toward explaining how well prepared Croft was for what lay under the sofa, because it was not at all what he expected. It wasn’t a nineteenth-century tome, he was sure of that in less time than it took to gently dislodge the book from its box. “It was in a contemporary binding, for a start, very tall for a folio Bible, just big and not the kind of dimensions of a Victorian family Bible,” he said. Upon opening it, he said, “I suppose I knew immediately what it was—it’s of a type. Circa 1300, Italian Bible. But they’re never that big. They’re normally little things, quarto-sized. I just couldn’t get over how big this thing was.” Aside from the size, Croft could see that the manuscript was on vellum and the quality of the illumination was very good. “I’m rarely gobsmacked by a book, but this was really breathtaking from every point of view.” Undoubtedly there would be no well-rehearsed “family Bible” conversation, but what could he say to this? “I was really not quite sure what to do, what to say,” Croft said. “Where do you start? Because I didn’t know how much he knew, I didn’t know what his ultimate intentions were.” Croft is in business to sell books, and he admitted that his instincts were partly commercial. He wanted to do the “right thing” by this distant family member while also keeping his options open as a dealer because, he said, when you see something of this caliber, you rarely get a second chance. “I was pretty speechless and spent quite a while just asking if I could go through it. I’m not very good at disguising emotion or excitement when it comes to a book,” Croft said. He certainly couldn’t properly collate it then and there, but he did a quick check to judge the book’s completeness. “Everything about it felt like a Bible that hadn’t been touched or fiddled around with for many, many years.” By “fiddling around,” he was referring chiefly to past dealers who might have penciled in a code, a price, or some bit of research on the endpapers. The information is often useful but also takes some of the thrill out of the discovery. Croft guessed that this Bible hadn’t been through a dealer’s hands in at least fifty years. He later learned that the Bible had indeed been in this relative’s family for about one hundred years. The man assumes that his father, a fairly wealthy businessman, purchased it in the early twentieth century. As an inheritance, he understood that it had some value, although he had largely ignored it. “I suppose he was sitting on it as a possible asset in the future . . . but hadn’t been down the route of getting it valued,” said Croft. Croft asked him what he intended to do with it. Was he truly looking to sell, or just to ascertain its proper insurance value? Either way, Croft wasn’t prepared to present any figures—as much as he knows about medieval manuscripts, they are outside of his day-to-day trading. “I needed to think about it, needed to check records and really have a look around to see if it was as unique as I thought it was,” said Croft. He left the Bible, went home, and spent a week researching. When he was ready, he told the man that he felt the Bible was worth at least £80,000 to £100,000 (about $130,000 to $165,000). He wasn’t offering to buy it, mind you; he was merely suggesting an estimated value. “It wasn’t something that I would have put in a catalog for two hundred thousand pounds, offer it to Yale, and see if they buy it,” said Croft. “It doesn’t tend to work like that. The niche that I’ve carved out is not that niche.” After a short time passed, the man let Croft know that he was interested in selling, as he was planning to retire and relocate, and that he desired Croft’s help, to work with him as an agent. Croft was excited by the prospect of shepherding the book into the marketplace. “I spent a couple of days with him in London. We went round together showing it to different people, talking around it, and getting a feel for the market,” said Croft. “He wasn’t stupid. We took it to both the major houses [Christie’s and Sotheby’s], we took it to a couple of dealers, we went out to lunch and talked about it.” Within a month, the man had consigned the Bible to Christie’s, which put a presale estimate on it of about $300,000 to $400,000. It was a fair number. This particular Bible, penned by a scribe in northern Italy in the first decade or two of the fourteenth century, was richly illuminated and decorated with a variety of colors—in miniature illustrations and more than fifty extraordinary historiated initials. Like Croft, the auction house found the illumination to be of the highest quality and suggested several masters of the art as possible contributors to the volume. The experts inferred that this Bible was very likely in institutional use, and some ownership marks convey its provenance, over several hundred years, from Italy to France to England. And now, perhaps, back to France. At auction, the manuscript Bible achieved a final bid in excess of $350,000, a price that surely pleased all parties. But Croft hadn’t yet seen the last of that very special book. At the Paris antiquarian book fair in 2014, he was “brought up short” when he spied it in a dealer’s booth. In a way, Croft’s fateful encounter with his distant relative and, ultimately, with the Bible, is very much akin to his work on Antiques Roadshow. It was an entirely fresh object. “As a book dealer, you’re often buying things which people have seen before. You’re buying in the trade, you’re buying at auction, of course you do get to buy privately occasionally, but you don’t so often meet the original owner, the person who’s had it in the family forever, who has a very close and personal connection to the item,” he said. In the same vein, one of his most exciting Roadshow sightings was a fifteenth-century manuscript called the “Lockit Book” of Perth, a medieval Guild registry that is seldom removed from its fire-resistant safe. When its owner, the Guildry Incorporation of Perth, brought it to the show in 2013, Croft appraised the volume at £100,000 ($150,000). When Croft goes scouting—which isn’t as often as he’d like, he said— he tends to veer off the beaten path. His preferred spots are the antiques markets and flea markets in Paris. “There are some great open-air fairs in Paris which are my all-time favorite places for going to look for books. But it’s not necessarily that the values are very high, it’s just that you’re buying things you haven’t seen before.” An unexpected find, whether it is something unique or something that warrants reexamination, reminds us how exciting book scouting or antiquing of any kind can be, even when it seems as though the “golden age” has passed. “I’m just always astounded at how much more stuff there is out there. As a dealer you get rather jaded,” Croft said. “There’s this idea that there’s a finite amount and somehow we’ve gotten to the bottom of it, and it’s just not true. Miraculous things do come out. That’s why we do what we do. . . . It’s a bit like the family Bible—that only has to happen once every few years and it keeps you fresh.” Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: Feed your inner bibliophile with this volume on unearthed rare and antiquarian books. Few collectors are as passionate or as dogged in the pursuit of their quarry as collectors of rare books. In Rare Books Uncovered, expert on rare and antiquarian books Rebecca Rego Barry recounts the stories of remarkable discoveries from the world of book collecting. Read about the family whose discovery in their attic of a copy of Action Comics No. 1–the first appearance of Superman-saved their home from foreclosure. Or the Salt Lake City bookseller who volunteered for a local fundraiser–and came across a 500-year-old copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Or the collector who, while browsing his local thrift shop, found a collectible copy of Calvary in China–inscribed by the author to the collector’s grandfather. These tales and many others will entertain and inspire casual collectors and hardcore bibliomaniacs alike. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.