Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2019 Issue

A Search Underway for Thousands of Books Looted Almost Four Centuries Ago

Codex Gigas and its Devil's portrait (Kungl. biblioteket photo).

The theft of books is a centuries-old problem that has received increasing attention in recent years as tools for locating them have improved. Not just better scientific means of identifying copies has played a role, but also communications have been greatly enhanced by the internet. More recently, we have seen attempts to locate books stolen, not just years or decades but centuries ago. Last month, we reported on an attempt by a group from the Portuguese city of Faro to have books stolen four centuries earlier returned by the Bodleian Library (click here). Usually, the searches are done by those seeking to have the books returned, though that is not always the case. Here is another attempt to locate, though not return books and manuscripts looted over three and one-half centuries ago.

 

This story goes back to the Thirty Years' War. That took place from 1618-1648. Most of it occurred in the Holy Roman Empire, which as they say, was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. It was more of a loose confederation of states in Central Europe, consisting of numerous principalities, not just the larger countries, such as Germany of today. Parts of the empire were at war with each other and with other European nations for 30 years. Sometimes, parties switched sides. It started out as a Catholic-Protestant thing, but as it evolved, it had more to do with national rivalries than theological disputes.

The war began, and ended, in Prague, then capital of Bohemia. It started with what was known as the Defenestration of Prague. A defenestration is when you throw somebody out of an upper story window. It's not a nice thing to do, but some Protestants were seriously peeved at Catholics for taking rights away from them. Thirty years later, it ended in the same city, though this was not a final, concluding battle that determined the outcome of the war. Treaties were already being signed. By this time, Sweden had been long involved in the war for some reason. Sweden was still a military power in the day. The Swedes attacked Prague, capturing part of the city before peace was officially concluded and the war ended.

 

Before peace was announced, the Swedes engaged in some looting. Some believe that with the war about to end, the only reason the Swedes attacked Prague was for one more opportunity to loot. The Swedes captured Prague Castle, where the defenstrations started the war 30 years earlier, and began looting books, manuscripts, whatever. The castle contained the library of the earlier Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Among the spoils of war was the Codex Gigas, sometimes referred to as the "Devil's Bible" for its large drawing of the Devil. It is the largest extent illuminated medieval bible. Between the castle and other locations, including a monastery, Jesuit college, and several aristocrats' palaces, the Swedes packed up thousands of books and manuscripts and left town. They took them, naturally enough, to Sweden.

 

Now, Lenka Vesela of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic is trying to identify what books were stolen and where they are now. It is a daunting task, though progress is being made. First, it is hard to know exactly what was taken. There weren't good records in Prague. Some of the best records are in Sweden where libraries noted their provenance. Still, it is only expected that 15%-20% of what was taken will ever be identified.

 

Then there is the question of where it all went. Some went to the Swedish Royal Library in Stockholm and is still there. Sadly, there was a big fire in 1697 and many of the books were destroyed. Fortunately, some quick thinking person grabbed the Codex Gigas and defenestrated it.

 

While many of the books are still scattered around Swedish libraries, many others are no longer in the country. A large collection of manuscripts was given to Swedish Queen Christina. Christina ascended to the throne at the age of 6 in 1632, but in 1654, she converted to Catholicism and abdicated. She and her library moved to Rome, and after her death, they were purchased by the Pope for the Vatican Library, where they remain.

 

Another part of the collection was dispersed when the Library of Strangas (Sweden) sold its books at auction in the late 18th century. Most were purchased by collectors in Denmark, with many of the estimated 1,000 Czech books ending up in the Royal Library of Copenhagen. A few others made their way to a library in St. Petersburg. A handful were actually returned to Prague in 1878 thanks to the efforts of a Czech historian and the Swedish King making a conciliatory gesture. Many others were destroyed in fires beyond that at the Swedish Royal Library, while others ended up in private hands. In one case, a librarian was paid in Czech books in place of an unpaid salary. Those in private hands will be even more difficult if not impossible to trace. Vesela estimates that only around 3,000 of what may have been as many as 25,000 looted books will ever be located.

 

Interestingly, Vesela does not see this as an attempt to return the books to the Czech Republic. She sees looting as part of the law of war in that era and attempting to apply current law retrospectively as being problematic. Rather, this is a joint heritage project, the books now having spent more of their lives in Sweden than in the Czech Republic. Digitization of the books and manuscripts would open virtual libraries to all, making it unnecessary to pursue the return of physical copies.

Rare Book Monthly

  • ALDE, May 28: KIPLING (RUDYARD). Le Livre de la Jungle. – Le IIe livre de la Jungle. Paris, Sagittaire, Simon Kra, 1924-1925. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: NOAILLES (ANNA DE). Les Climats. Paris, Société du Livre contemporain, 1924. €50,000 to €60,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MILTON (JOHN). Paradis perdu. Quatrième chant. S.l., Les Bibliophiles de l'Automobile-Club de France, 1974. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LEBEDEV (VLADIMIR). Russian Placards - Placard Russe 1917-1922. Saint-Petersbourg, Sterletz, 1923. €1,000 to €1,200.
    ALDE, May 28: MARDRUS (JOSEPH-CHARLES). Histoire charmante de l'adolescente sucre d'amour. Paris, F.-L. Schmied, 1927. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: TABLEAUX DE PARIS. Paris, Émile-Paul Frères, 1927. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LA FONTAINE (JEAN DE). Les Fables illustrées par Paul Jouve. S.l. [Lausanne], Gonin & Cie, 1929. €4,000 to €5,000.
    ALDE, May 28: SARTRE (JEAN-PAUL). Vingt-deux dessins sur le thème du désir. Paris, Fernand Mourlot, 1961. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: [BRAQUE (GEORGES)]. 13 mai 1962. Alès, PAB, 1962. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MIRÓ (JOAN). Je travaille comme un jardinier. Avant-propos d'Yvon Taillandier. Paris, Société intenationale d'art XXe siècle, 1963. €1,000 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MAGNAN (JEAN-MARIE). Taureaux. Paris, Michèle Trinckvel, 1965. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: PICASSO (PABLO). Dans l'atelier de Picasso. 1960. €15,000 to €20,000.
  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.
  • Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Marx, Das Kapital,1867. Dedication copy. Est: € 120,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Latin and French Book of Hours, around 1380. Est: € 25,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis, 1598-1625. Est: € 80,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviary, Latin manuscript, around 1450-75. Est: € 10,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    G. B. Piranesi, Vedute di Roma, 1748-69. Est: € 60,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Schmidt-Rottluff, Arbeiter, 1921. Orig. watercolour on postcard. Est: € 18,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviarium Romanum, Latin manuscript, 1474. Est: € 20,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    C. J. Trew, Plantae selectae, 1750-73. Est: € 28,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    M. Beckmann, Apokalypse, 1943. Est: € 50,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Ulrich von Richenthal, Das Concilium, 1536. Est: € 9,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    I. Kant, Critik der reinen Vernunft, 1781. Est: €12,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) / Die Volks-Illustrierte (VI), 1932-38. Est: €8,000

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