The year is 1999; the location, Christie’s London. A Renaissance prayer book, a Book of Hours known as the Rothschild Prayerbook, is up for sale. It is one of the finest illuminated manuscripts available to private hands. It contains illustrations from the most acclaimed and distinguished illuminators of the late 15th and early 16th centuries such as Gerard Horenbout, Simon Bening, his father Alexander Bening, and Gerard David. The quality of work is unmatched by other material publically available. It is considered a titan among the achievements of Flemish Renaissance painting, with 150 pages, 67 of which are full-page miniatures, and borders of exquisite quality. It is part of a prestigious group of manuscrits-de-luxe that was completed between 1490 and 1520, the rest of which are held by institutions: a Book of Hours in the British Library, the Spinola Hours at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Grimani Breviary at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice. All four works contain the work of Horenbout, who became court painter to Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, in 1515, and later worked for King Henry VIII in England. Even the item’s provenance is fabled. It was originally made for a member of the imperial court in the Netherlands around 1505, and in the 19th century added to the Rothschild family collection before being confiscated by the Nazis. In this year, 1999, the Austrian government returned the manuscript, along with other valuable collectibles, to the Rothschilds who then offered them for sale.
In 1999, the Prayerbook was the prize of the Rothschild auction, which raised nearly $90 million. Bidding was fierce among five bidders, and on route to setting an auction record for the most expensive illuminated manuscript ever sold, the book sold for close to three times its high estimate of $4.9 million. The price was not one that simply rolls off the tongue: $13,378,558.
Nearly fifteen years later, and a few days ago, the same Book of Hours resurfaced in the rooms—again with Christie’s, but this time in New York—with the hope of setting a new record.
Nicholas Hall, the International Co-Chairman of Old Master & 19th-Century Art at Christie’s, commented in a press release: “Every aspect of this Book of Hours – from the quality of the parchment to the wealth and refinement of the decoration – marks the Rothschild Prayerbook as one of the most prestigious and exquisite examples of Flemish manuscript illumination. Christie’s is honored to be entrusted with its sale for the second time in a generation. We are excited to include it as the centerpiece of a global tour of highlights from our Old Masters Week, giving collectors around the world an opportunity to see this beautifully rendered and remarkably well-preserved work.”
This time around, Christie’s New York attempted to estimate the item at prices in line with history. The estimate was set at $12-18 million. On top of the world tour which preceded the sale, newspapers and online publications covered the upcoming auction. The stage was set for a large showing.
Christie’s released today results for the sale. Some publications had keyed in on the high estimate of $18 million with headlines like “Prayerbook could sell for $18M.” But to set a new record, $18 million was not required. The final hammer price, $13,605,000.00, achieved the hope, if just barely. In terms of overall value, with inflation taken into account, the price came down a notch. But the record still stands!
Where goes this book from here? While the rest of its compatriot manuscrits-de-luxe are housed in museums, this one remains in private hands. We will see it again. And wherever it goes, its fate will become clear, for some books cast shadows that span continents, and this is one of them.