The surprising journey of a special book.
Davis (Mona Lisa in Camelot: How Jacqueline Kennedy and Da Vinci’s Masterpiece Charmed and Captivated a Nation, 2008, etc.) follows the remarkable tale of “Number 45,” one of the finest copies of the Gutenberg Bible in existence. The author focuses the narrative on the life of book collector Estelle Doheny, whose oil-tycoon husband was at the center of the infamous Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s. In 1950, she purchased the Gutenberg as the crowning achievement of her life as a collector and as a devout Catholic. Doheny’s various attempts to purchase a Gutenberg, and the dealers, scholars, and members of her household who took part in the quest, make for engrossing reading. However, the story of Number 45 is far deeper and richer, beginning with the unsurpassed skill and ingenuity of Gutenberg himself. This particular copy went on to be owned by three intriguing modern owners before Doheny. Through the stories of these three wealthy men, the author explores the significance of rare book collecting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The collectors themselves all have interesting backgrounds, as well—e.g., Charles William Dyson Perrins, heir to the Lea & Perrins worcestershire sauce fortune as well as a once-famed porcelain dynasty. After Doheny’s death, Number 45 was used in scientific experiments to determine the components of Gutenberg’s inks. She had left the Bible—and the entirety of her rare-book and art collection—in the care of a Catholic seminary, but church authorities decided to sell everything in the late 1980s, and Number 45 changed hands yet again, landing at a Japanese firm for a record $5.4 million. Davis does a fine job telling a fascinating story that touches on the origin of books, the passion of collectors, the unseen world of rare-book dealers, and the lives of the super-rich, past and present.
A great read for any book lover.