Old is new again

Fifteenth-century history book discovered in farmhouse

— Barrie Pribyl knew she had something special when she took the old book out of the farmhouse and loaded it into her car with the hundreds of others.

What the book dealer didn't know right away was that she had the "Nuremberg Chronicle," a 500-year-old history of the world considered a milestone in the history of printing.


AP Photos

Archivist Ellen Dyer shows off a rare copy of the "Nuremberg Chronicle" that was then on display at the Camden Public Library in Camden, Maine. The book, published in 1493, was discovered by a Camden book dealer while buying books from a man who was settling his parents' estate.

Her client was in Maine to settle his parents' estate. They weren't collectors of rare books, but they did own some of value.

"He said to us, 'I think we have a Gutenberg Bible,"' Pribyl said.

But it wasn't the Bible of Johann Gutenberg, which is believed to be the first major book printed in movable type in the West.

Back in Pribyl's Camden shop, a query on the Internet revealed that the book, printed some 50 years later, was the "Nuremberg Chronicle," a work largely considered the greatest illustrated book of its time.

"All you have to do is type in 'Books Published in 1493.' There are not a whole lot of them," Pribyl said.

Art and words combine

The "Nuremberg Chronicle" relates the history of the world starting with Genesis in Gothic text and a profusion of woodcut illustrations throughout nearly 600 pages.

Compiled by physician Hartmann Schedel, it was produced by Anton Koberger, a Nuremberg publisher considered one of the time's most important in Europe. The book features the woodcuts of Michael Wohlgemuth, his stepson Wilhelm Pleyenwurff and Albrecht Durer, a masterful artist who elevated the status of graphic arts.


This is a portion of a page from the "Nuremberg Chronicle," a 500-year-old history of the world.

The book contains more than 1,800 illustrations. The first show God's hand emerging from a fluffy sleeve and gesturing over the cosmos, depicted as concentric rings. The ones that follow include biblical and classical scenes, genealogies and maps of the world as seen through late 15th-century eyes.

The illustrations were made from 645 woodcuts, some of which were repeated throughout the work. For example, the same 49 cuts were used to portray more than 200 kings and emperors, and 28 were used for nearly 200 popes.

Twenty-two cuts illustrated 69 cities. As Pribyl noted, "There are an awful lot of things that sort of look like Nuremberg."

Koberger printed a total of 2,500 copies of the book, one version in Latin and the other in German. About 1,200 in all are believed to remain in existence today.

Recent prices ranged from less than $60,000 to $125,000, but the asking price for individual pages can be as low as $10 on eBay.

Pribyl believes her client intends to keep his book, which was appraised at $60,000 to $80,000. The client, not surprisingly, doesn't want his identity known, and Pribyl isn't giving any hints.

Collectors' items

The owner's identity isn't the only mystery surrounding the book. The client, who is middle-aged, said his parents never talked about the book, which was protected from light with other books stacked on top of it, Pribyl said. He believes his parents bought it before his birth, Pribyl said.

Forty years ago, before the prices of rare books skyrocketed, a copy could be bought for about $1,500, said Terry Belanger, founder of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.

Many original copies of the "Nuremberg Chronicle" remain in private hands and they were widely collected by individuals until fairly recently, said Belanger.

At the time of its publication, the book would have been popular with a wealthy, nonscholarly audience. The majority of books then, including the "Nuremberg Chronicle," would have been religious in nature. But there were also other types, including philosophy, manuals, schoolbooks and traveler's guides.

The "Nuremberg Chronicle" would have been attractive as one of the first comprehensive histories of the world and because of its pictures.

"To this day, the illustrations march right off the page. There's an immediacy to them that have charmed people for more than five centuries," Belanger said. "It's a book everybody likes."

Bibliophiles at the Camden Public Library, where the owner allowed the book to be displayed before taking it home, certainly were charmed. Some gathered around as Ellen Dyer, the library's archivist, donned white cotton gloves and turned the rag paper pages.

None of those present could read the Middle High German that was rendered in type mimicking the script of medieval manuscripts, a tradition that faded with the emergence of printing. But the viewers responded with delight to the hand-colored illustrations.

Kathryn Adamsky of Union had stopped by more than once to see the different pages displayed each day.

"I should have come by more often," she said. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity."


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