To the relief of everyone concerned, a German library yesterday paid $2 million for a Gutenberg Bible, the highest price a book ever brought at auction.
When book dealer Bernard Breslauer, acting for the Stuttgart State Library, topped two other dealers after 30 seconds of rapid bidding, it provided the curtain for the second act of a drama that has fascinated the rare-book world for months and could be titled "The Tangled Tale of the Three Gutenbergs."
The drama began when it became apparent last year that three of the 48 extant copies of the world's first large printed book were going to be offered for sale in New York at the same time.
Only 21 of the 48 are complete copies of the two-volume Latin Bible that Johann Gutenberg printed in Mainz, Germany, between 1450 and 1456. Of the others, 14 lack some pages and 13 are only one of the two volumes.
The three Bibles were being put on the market by H.P. Kraus, a New York dealer, by the General Theological Seminary of New York City, and by the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library.
The question was, Were there three buyers and would the sellers get the prices they asked?
The first act ended last month when the city of Mainz bought the least desirable of the three Bibles, Kraus' copy, for $1.8 million, after sending a delegation to New York to inspect all three copies.
The Kraus copy lacks four leaves, but the Mainz officials reportedly were not interested in taking their chances in the auction room, where the seminary copy was already committed to be sold. Nor were they willing to pay the higher price being asked by Pforzheimer for his copy, the best of the three.
The seminary copy has an interesting history, and in 1884 it briefly held the distinction it recaptured yesterday of being the most expensive book ever sold at auction. That time it was bought by England's most famous bookseller, Bernard Quaritch, for 3,900 pounds sterling.
Gutenberg and his associates printed about 185 sets of their Bible, 150 on paper and 35 on vellum. The seminary copy is one of the first issues and was given to the Episcopal Library by the Very Rev. Eugene Augustus Hoffman, dean of the seminary, in 1898.
At that time, it lacked one leaf.
Bishop Mellick Belshaw, one of the seminary's trustees, said yesterday that the question of selling the Gutenberg "has been an explicit issue for the seminary."
However, the question came up over and over again as the seminary faced financial problems. In the early 1950s, the faculty voted down a proposal to sell the Bible even though the money was to be used for faculty salaries.
Shortly after that, in 1953, book dealer Charles Scribner gave the seminary the leaf its copy lacked, but the seminary continued to consider selling the most valuable book of its excellent theological collection.
About a year ago, Bishop Belshaw said, the decision was finally made.
Belshaw said he was very relieved that the Bible brought $2 million. "We didn't want it to go for under $1.5 million," he said. "That would have made it difficult with the alumni." The alumni, he said, were aware that Kraus had recently secured $1.8 million for his Bible. The seminary will use the proceeds of the sale to endow its library.
"There were all kinds of demors," Belshaw says. He also remarked that he was stunned when Christie's President David Bathurst opened the bidding at $500,000. "I thought it was going to start at $1 million," the bishop said. But his discomfort lasted only seconds as the bidding climbed by $100,000 increases.
Texas dealer John Jenkins dropped out at $1.6 million.San Francisco dealer Warren Howell, reportedly bidding for a New England collector, stopped at $1.9 million.
The crowded auction room at Christie's Park Avenue offices applauded briefly and several friends shook hands with Breslauer after the Bible was sold to him.
Breslauer's client, the Stuttgart library, will actually pay $2.2 million for the Bible because Christie's charges a 10 percent fee to purchasers.
Bathurst provoked laughter when he reminded the room of this service charge before opening the bidding. "I didn't want you to forget," he said.
Pforzheimer, who attended the auction, must have been one of the happiest men in the room.
Rumors have circulated for weeks that the University of Texas will buy his perfect Gutenberg, but a poor showing by the seminary copy would have knocked several hundred thousand dollars off his price.
At the same time that the auction was taking place, the University of Texas regents were meeting in Galveston to discuss purchasing the third Gutenberg. They were reliably reported to be nervous about student protests at such a large expenditure for a book.
When Gutenberg's bibles came off the press, he asked about 20 guilders for the paper edition and a little more for the vellum. Twenty guilders was about $1,000.
Gutenberg's have generally been good, but not sensational, investments. The copy Mainz bought for $1.8 million sold 25 years ago for a reported $180,000. That would be 9.65 percent compound interest annually.
When the third of this year's crop of Gutenberg's is sold, there will be one longstanding Gutenberg mystery unresolved.
Before World War II, there were three Gutenberg Bibles in Leipzig.When the war ended, Leipzig was under Soviet control and only one of the three Bibles has been seen since 1945.