Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gutenberg Bible Surfaces Here

For nearly half a century, one of the world's rarest and most valuable books - a 15th-century Gutenberg bible - has been hidden in a locked safe in the Russian State Library, officials said Wednesday.


The carefully preserved bible, one of only 12 of its type, is part of a collection of 600 rare books and manuscripts from Germany that has been held secretly in Russia since the end of World War II, said Igor Filippov, the library's director.


The collection, the most valuable part of which was taken from a book museum in Leipzig, the publishing capital of prewar Germany, will soon be catalogued, made available to scholars and displayed, he said.


"It's just totally ridiculous to keep such a thing secret", Filippov said at a press conference. "It is an insult to the dignity of Russia".


The Gutenberg bibles, made in the mid-1450s in Mainz, Germany, by the German printer Johann Gutenberg, are considered to be the first printed books in the Western world, said Peter Van Wingen, a specialist in the book arts for the Library of Congress in Washington, which also has a Gutenberg bible in its collection.


"It's always been one of the amazing ironies that the first book to come off the printing press is one of the most glorious ever printed", he said.


The bible at the Russian State Library, each page bordered with hand-painted flowers, is one of only 46 surviving Gutenberg bibles in the world, said Tatyana Kondakova, director of the library's rare books department. It is only one of 12 such bibles printed on calf's skin rather than paper, she said.


Even fewer are complete versions in such good condition.


"You need a whole herd of animals to make one book like this", said Kondakova as she casually turned the pages of the bible. Filippov said he learned of the existence of the bible only a month ago, when a group of German specialists was visiting Moscow to look for rare books that had disappeared from Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden at the end of the war. Many scholars of early printing, however, have known for about a year that the book was in Moscow, according to a specialist at Sotheby's in New York.


The revelation of the hidden collection is the latest in a string of admissions about Russia's "trophy art", the thousands of art masterpieces and treasures taken by the Soviets after the defeat of Germany.


In October 1992, Russia admitted that a Dutch collection of Old Master drawings, the Koenigs collection, was among thousands of pieces of art seized from the Nazis in 1945 and brought to Moscow. Another collection of paintings that included works by Van Gogh, Van Dyke and Rembrandt was displayed at the Hermitage last year for the first time since Soviet troops looted them from Germany during the war.


In perhaps the most tantalizing disclosure, Russian museum officials acknowledged in August having priceless gold treasures from the ruins of Troy that the Soviet Union had long been suspected of hiding. The collection, discovered by a German archeologist in the 19th century, had disappeared from Germany during the war.


Germany and Russia agreed earlier this year to try to return at least some of the hundreds of thousands of art treasures they took from each other in the war. In the case of rare books, Filippov said many of them were sent to libraries throughout the former Soviet Union. Resolving the restitution issue will be a "long and complicated" process, he added.


"The most important thing is not where the book is, but that it should be accessible", he said.