Tuesday, June 21st, 2016...9:00 am

William King Richardson, Part II: “One of the most remarkable specimens of XVth century binding I have ever seen.”

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In April the library began a three month project entering provenance information from Houghton incunabula into the Manuscript Evidence in Incunabula database (MEI). Maintained by the Consortium of European Research Libraries, MEI enables scholars to research and compare copy-specific features in incunabula across an international multitude of repositories.


These two sets of image show the same book at different times:  above, as it appears now, and below, the same book as at it appeared in the catalogue of a prominent European bookseller in the late 1920’s.

So what happened here?

The book is the Schatzbehalter der wahren Reichtümer des Heils (WKR 2.2.1), written by Stephan Fridolin and printed by Anton Koberger at Nuremberg, 1491, in an edition famous for its copious woodcuts illustrating the life and passion of Christ, and here preserved in a contemporary, likely original binding. In the course of entering the book’s provenance into the CERL MEI database, it became evident that while the binding is certainly early, it is regrettably not wholly in its original state. The volume came to Houghton Library as part of the 1951 bequest of William King Richardson, and there is mounted to the front flyleaf a typewritten description of the book along with Richardson’s manuscript note, indicating that Richardson purchased the book from the New York firm of C. Lathrop Harper in 1937. A second typescript, helpfully titled “From Goldschmidt’s Catalogue X”, describes the binding in greater detail, with remarks on the 12th-century liturgical manuscript on parchment which the binder has used for the pastedowns. Houghton Library has a copy of E.P. Goldschmidt’s Catalogue X, issued ca. 1926, and turning to it we find that the second typescript is indeed what it purports to be – mostly. The bibliographic points, the binding description, the note on the manuscript leaves of binder’s waste have all been copied verbatim from Goldschmidt’s catalogue. But there is a significant discrepancy: three full paragraphs, describing a Hebrew manuscript on vellum which envelopes the binding, and which can be seen in the accompanying photographs, have been omitted, without remark, in the typed copy.

Goldschmidt’s description of the outer covering reads in full:

The binding of our copy is especially remarkable. Completely enveloping the calf-covered wooden boards is a vellum leaf from a Hebrew MS. of the Pentateuch. On the front cover we have the last lines of the 5th Book of Moses (Deut. 34, vv. 9-12), surrounded by extraordinary calligraphic ornaments in the shape of grotesque heads of beasts and human beings, and flowers, all formed of minute Hebrew characters, giving, no doubt, a continuous text which we are unfortunately unable to decipher.

The portion of this vellum leaf enveloping the back cover is also covered with splendid Hebrew handwriting, peculiarly arranged in verse form over the page, and the text of this corresponds to Deut. 32, vv. 34-51. It may be safely assumed that the text of the intervening matter between Deu. 32, v. 51 and Deut. 34, v. 9 occurs on the inside of this vellum leaf.

A closer examination affords convincing proof that this Hebrew leaf has been used as a cover for this particular book ever since it was first bound, since the nails of the clasp and catches pierce the vellum.

The whole forms one of the most remarkable specimens of XVth century binding I have ever seen.

I have seen no evidence that Richardson ever owned the Hebrew manuscript. The typescript is consistent with the sort of clippings found in many of his books, but if the transcription from Goldschmidt is Richardson’s doing, his reason for omitting the description of the distinctive Hebrew manuscript is unclear.  Was it because he no longer owned it or because he never owned it in the first place? Then again, perhaps the abridged transcription does not originate with Richardson, but came with the book. If true, Richardson may have been blissfully unaware that the binding had been altered. What is clear is that at some time around or prior to 1937, someone was moved by profit to separate the Hebrew manuscript from the book, and its present whereabouts are unknown.  Having spent some time searching through Harper catalogues issued between 1926 and 1937, and finding no instance of a 1498 Schatzbehalter in such a binding, I surmise that Harper sold it to Richardson directly, through personal correspondence, and not through listing it in a catalogue. This would not have been unusual, but in this case it is pity, as an appearance in Harper’s, or indeed any bookseller’s catalogue, with or without the Hebrew manuscript covering the binding, would be the key to the whole mystery. The end result is rather more questions than answers, which I suppose is par for the course with provenance research. Happily at least, the liturgical manuscript used for the pastedowns has remained intact, as shown below.


This post is the second in a series on William King Richardson. The previous post “Diplomas and Certificates,” can be read here.

Noah Sheola, Bibliographic & Metadata Assistant, contributed this post.

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