Theodore Irwin. The Irwin-Hilliard Collection, University of Louisville.

The original purchaser of this volume cannot be identified. The earliest mark of provenance is a gift inscription dated 1565 on I,2r indicating that Hieronymus Opitz, pastor of a church in Bischofswerda had presented it as a token of respect and friendship to Melchior Gaubisch, a Lutheran minister in Langenwolmsdorf. Opitz and Gaubisch must have been well acquainted since they performed their pastoral duties in neighboring towns in Saxony, just a few miles east of Dresden. There is no telling how this book fell into the hands of Opitz, "a congenial and learned man," who was born not far from Bischofswerda in Lobendau or Lobendava in the Czech Republic. He took on the post at Bischofswerda in 1558 when the previous pastor resigned in protest against the Lutheran doctrines newly adopted in that region. Not coincidentally, Gaubisch was appointed the first Lutheran minister in his parish in the same year. In the following year, the protestant Elector of Saxony assumed political control of Bischofswerda, formerly a domain belonging to the catholic bishops of Meissen. The Reformation swept through this region and introduced a new religious and political order, disenfranchising some church officials and making the careers of others such as Opitz and Gaubisch. For them, this copy of the bible was a pledge of friendship, a memento of revolutionary changes, and a source of shared religious convictions.

Melchior Gaubisch died in 1604. The Old Testament copy then passed into the hands of Heinrich von Nostitz (d. 1629), a steward of the Holy Roman Emperor, and by descent to his son Carl Heinrich von Nostitz (1613–1684), whose ownership inscription can be seen on the first leaf, I,1r. Proprietor of several estates about thirty-five miles east of Langenwolmsdorf, Carl Heinrich was equerry to the Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg, chamberlain to the Elector of Saxony, and a member of the German baroque literary society the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft. The Nostitz family was large, and Carl Heinrich made it even larger by producing thirteen children. As yet it has been impossible to ascertain if or how he was related to an eighteenth-century Otto von Nostitz, who also owned a Gutenberg Bible, now at the Huntington Library.

We are much better informed about his day-to-day activities, which he reported in a five-hundred-page diary covering fifty years of an eventful life in the middle tier of the German aristocracy. He wrote a vivid account of his education at court and in Paris, where he obtained instruction in the "noble arts" of dancing, fencing, and the French language (which he used in love letters to his wife). He described other travels, as well as noteworthy adventures such as a duel, a tourney, and a coronation. He noted how he restored the family's properties after the ravages of the Thirty Years War. Unfortunately, he did not say a word about the Bible, which he gave in 1677 to a church in the village of Kleinbautzen, one of his estates. Accompanying the Bible was a document, now lost, in which he instructed present and future pastors to use it diligently and keep it constantly on the church premises, where they could have it easily at hand for reading scripture and performing services. He must have had some special interest in this church because he was buried there—in a magnificent tomb with his effigy carved in stone, showing him in full-dress armor, sword in hand. He also bequeathed money for the upkeep of the pastor and established for his use a library, which, in 1806, was said to have included "an old Bible printed before the time of the Reformation."

A local newspaper reported that it reposed in the Kleinbautzen parish library undisturbed and unappreciated for nearly two centuries. This newspaper, the Bautzener Nachrichten, carried a lively correspondence about the origins and identification of the Bible, beginning in March 1874, when it came to the attention of a local antiquarian. He made a thorough examination of this curiosity, which he described as a manuscript written in "the most exact church Gothic characters," weighing precisely nineteen pounds and a quarter of an ounce and measuring around 15 3/4 x 11 4/5 inches. A few months later another correspondent wrote in to say that it was not a manuscript at all, except for the initials and rubrication, but rather the famous 42-line Bible of Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of printing. The correspondent is not identified although the editor called him a "highly respected and knowledgeable" person—someone well informed about its value and importance and sufficiently acquainted with the bibliographical literature of his day to state confidently that only six copies on parchment and nine copies on paper were known to survive. "It is highly regrettable," the expert observed, "that such a rare and special book should be put in danger by being kept in such highly unsuitable conditions, a damp sacristy, where no one could appreciate such a marvel, which would ordinarily figure as the ornament of a great library."

News of this discovery spread quickly. At the end of the year a member of the Nostitz family submitted a report on this copy to a bibliographical journal published in Dresden. This article concluded with a plea for the better preservation of the volume, parts of the plea repeating the passage quoted above almost word for word. On this basis one might suppose that the same person had composed both texts and that the identification of the Gutenberg Bible had been made by a descendant of the donor. The editor of the journal stated in a head-note that that he was publishing this report in hopes that it might inspire someone to purchase the volume and keep it in suitable conditions. Indeed, in May 1875 the Bautzen newspaper announced that an Englishman had purchased it for the sum of 8850 marks. The purchase price would have amounted to about $2,100 at the current rate of exchange, a pleasant windfall for the village, which was said to have sorely needed the money to pay for recently completed building projects. It would be good to know something more about this transaction. The newspaper and journal articles must have attracted some attention in far off places where one might be prepared to pay handsomely for a recently discovered Gutenberg Bible. Dealers and collectors in England would have been especially eager to acquire this monument of early printing, and perhaps one of them was sufficiently enterprising to make the trip to Kleinbautzen cash in hand. Nonetheless, the identity and the motivations of the Englishman remain a mystery.

After leaving Kleinbautzen, the Old Testament copy drops out of sight for several years. As yet it is impossible to determine whether it passed through the trade or resided in someone's personal collection. Quite possibly the Englishman brought it home, for in 1881 it came up for sale again at Sotheby's, London, where it fetched £760, roughly equivalent to $3,650. Sotheby's catalogue description claims that it had been discovered "in the sacristy of a village Church in Bavaria" by one G. Kamensky—not a very trustworthy account since Kleinbautzen is nowhere near Bavaria. This text probably refers to Gabriel Kamensky, a member of the Russian consulate in London who had helped to organize the Moscow Polytechnic Exhibition in 1872. He must have had some knowledge of early books since he is known to have owned a book formerly in the library of the great French Renaissance book collector Jean Grolier. If Kamensky was the "Englishman" who had bought the Bible and if he was the one who consigned it to Sotheby's, then he would have made a modest profit, the sum of $1550 now having the purchasing power of about $33,600.

Top bidder at the Sotheby's sale was the London antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch (1819–1899), who acquired it for stock. Two copies had already passed through his hands, and his firm would continue to facilitate the movements of Gutenberg Bibles, having participated in sales of eight copies altogether between 1858 and 1978. Soon after the Sotheby's sale, he offered this copy in a catalogue at £880, a bargain price considering that he had sold a complete two-volume copy for £3,000 (after having advertised it at £3,150). Eight years had passed since the last copy had come up for sale in England, and an opportunity to buy this "corner-stone of a valuable library, may never occur again."

Arguments like this succeeded in selling the book to one of Quaritch's most important American customers, Theodore Irwin (1827–1902), an agribusiness millionaire in Oswego, New York. Here, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, Irwin built his fortune, first by investing in flour mills and grain processing ventures, then by redirecting his efforts toward manufacturing, banking, transportation, and utilities. His fully diversified business career gave him the means to construct an elegant mansion downtown and to fill it with works of art and rare books, which he began to collect in 1853. He succeeded in obtaining most of the highspots fashionable at that time Shakespeare folios, Caxtons, incunabula, Americana, and extra-illustrated books, including a Bible extended to sixty volumes with more than thirty thousand prints and original drawings, "possibly the largest Bible in the world." He bought a number of manuscripts from Quaritch, the most famous being the tenth-century Golden Gospels of Henry VIII, written in gold on purple vellum. While maintaining cordial relations with his London dealer, he did not hesitate to drive a hard bargain now and then, if only by force of habit. Quaritch sold him the Gutenberg Bible at the discount price of £810 and granted him favorable terms in other transactions, which inspired some graceful compliments edged with complaints:

Your taste in books and Manuscripts is much like my own—you are the richer and the younger man—so you will ultimately be the conqueror over me. On no account will I ever tempt you to buy what you will not be pleased to have, and what you could not enjoy. On the other side, we must not hear anymore of 25% discount from my prices.

Theodore Irwin's library. The Irwin-Hilliard Collection, University of Louisville.

The Old Testament copy remained in Irwin's collection until 1900, when he decided to sell it along with his other most important prints and books. Then at the age of seventy-three, he decided that he was no longer able to take proper care of his collection and to deal with the inquiries of scholars who requested information about his holdings or wished to view them in Oswego. He arranged with the New York booksellers Joseph Frederick Sabin and George H. Richmond to inventory the collection and to prepare a prospectus, which they submitted to Pierpont Morgan and his nephew Junius Spencer Morgan, who sometimes advised on acquisitions. Irwin had hoped to avoid publicity, but that did not prevent the "Big Sale of Rare Books" from getting into the newspapers, which garbled some of the details. They were correct in stating that Morgan had paid around $200,000–$225,000 to be precise, an amount apparently including a handsome profit to the booksellers, who had borrowed money to buy the collection and then sell it at a markup. Archival evidence suggests that they paid Irwin $96,543.27 for the books and $80,504.49 for the prints, including a large quantity of Rembrandts now at the Morgan and a set of Dürers that Pierpont gave to Junius. They might have made an even larger profit if Richmond had succeeded in persuading Sabin to ask for $250,000, but some years later Sabin assured Morgan's librarian that he knew where to draw the line. Likewise, Morgan exercised some restraint in his choice of books and decided to exclude modern publications, reference items, and other undesirables including the gargantuan extra-illustrated Bible (which later went to the Huntington Library). The payment passed through intermediaries, one of them mistakenly identified as the purchaser of Irwin's library, but the press soon learned that it was to be a cornerstone of the rapidly growing Morgan collection.

Pierpont Morgan already owned a Gutenberg Bible, the vellum copy described above, acquired in 1896 from a London dealer. In 1911 he purchased at auction a third copy, the complete two volumes on paper, formerly the property of the English collector Henry Huth. Quaritch's son, Bernard Alfred Quaritch, served as Morgan's agent at the sale, no doubt pleased to handle such an important book, which his father had sold to Huth in 1874. The younger Quaritch reported that it was "beautifully fresh" and "superior to the vellum copies," perhaps thinking about the vellum copy recently sold to Henry Huntington for the record price of $50,000. This third copy, he remarked, "removes a serious reproach" from the Morgan collection, perhaps alluding to the imperfections in the Old Testament copy.