A 500-Year-Old Tale of Intrigue, Greed and Betrayal

The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey
By Margaret Leslie Davis

Whether we’re browsing in an antique store or perusing an auction catalog or walking through a museum, our imagination takes leaps. We are fascinated by the history of objects. We can’t help wondering where these timeworn treasures have been, what human dramas they have witnessed and what stories they could tell.

Margaret Leslie Davis, the author of “The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey,” has tracked down the history of a Gutenberg Bible, composing a lively tale of historical innovation, the thrill of the bibliophile’s hunt, greed and betrayal. For the book’s owners, possessing this rare volume often satisfied a profound emotional longing. “We change the book and it changes us,” Davis writes.

It was acquired by Lord William Tyssen-Amherst of Norfolk, a world traveler who built a notable library of rare books charting the invention of the printed word. His comfortable life was upended when his solicitor embezzled his fortune. In 1908, Amherst’s creditors forced him to auction off his Gutenberg, and he died a broken man six weeks later.

Charles William Dyson Perrins, the lucky buyer, ran two successful businesses: Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce and Royal Worcester Porcelain. But his valiant efforts to keep his factories going during World War II left him in financial straits. In need of money to rebuild, he sacrificed his books, selling his Gutenberg in 1947 to a dealer.

[ To shore up his porcelain company after World War II, the collector C.W. Dyson Perrins parted with many of his books. ]

Estelle Doheny was an unlikely collector. She had been a 25-year-old telephone operator when her voice enchanted Doheny. The oil man, more than twice her age, sought her out and they married in 1900. During her husband’s decade-long legal ordeal (he was acquitted of bribery, but his reputation was tarnished), she comforted herself by acquiring spiritual texts. The Gutenberg Bible, purchased in 1950, was the jewel of her collection, which she left to St. John’s Seminary upon her death in 1958.

In her bequest, she insisted that nothing be sold for 25 years, in the belief that future librarians should have flexibility but would keep the collection intact. It was a tragic mistake. The Los Angeles Archdiocese, unable to resist monetizing the valuable assets, put the entire Doheny book collection on sale in 1987. The Maruzen Co. Ltd. of Tokyo snapped up the Gutenberg for $5.4 million. It is now the property of Keio University, where it has been digitized and locked away from public view.

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