Illuminated Manuscripts and Early Printed Books from the Collection of Elaine and Alexandre Rosenberg at Christie’s New York 23 April 2021

- by Announcement, Rare Book Hub staff


The collection of Elaine and Alexandre P. Rosenberg is among the most important collections of illuminated manuscripts and early printed books to have ever appeared at auction. Moreover, Christie’s is delighted to convey that the proceeds from the auction will benefit the Elaine and Alexandre Rosenberg Charitable Foundation supporting institutions in their collection and preservation of rare books.


Alexandre P. Rosenberg, founding president of the Art Dealers Association of America, bibliophile and archetypal ‘scholar-dealer’, was the son of the pre-eminent French art dealer Paul Rosenberg, one of the greatest figures in the Parisian art world of the 20th century, representing giants of modern art such as Picasso, Matisse and Braque, and an instrumental figure in the migration of French pictures to the United States during the first half of the last century. Pablo Picasso was a witness on Alexandre’s birth certificate in Paris in 1921 and would become Alexandre’s lifelong friend. Upon his father’s death, Alexandre took over the gallery in New York and won acclaim with exhibitions that ranged from Renaissance bronzes to Cezanne and Picasso, American modernists and contemporaries from England and Italy.

Alexandre Rosenberg’s love of books was intrinsic and concurrent to his love of art. He was a bibliophile since childhood and was about 14 years old when Pablo Picasso designed a woodcut bookplate just for him. The motif of the window open to the sea was a family favorite. In October 1919, towards the beginning of his exclusive representation of Picasso, Paul Rosenberg held a large exhibition of drawings on the theme of the open window at Saint Raphaël, where Picasso had been honeymooning with Olga. Picasso designed the invitation to this exhibition (also his first use of the medium of lithography) and Rosenberg came to favor the open-window motif in his gallery publications for decades following. Alexandre Rosenberg used the c.1935 bookplate design throughout his life and it is present in the books in this auction.

Elaine Rosenberg, daughter of Frederik Sobel and Martha Bauman Sobel, was born and raised in New York City. She worked as an aircraft riveter in California, and then at the Department of Censorship in New York City during World War II. In 1948 she married Alexandre, and together they shared a life of connoisseurship, collecting and philanthropy. She met and befriended many celebrated artists represented by Paul Rosenberg & Co., including Picasso, Marie Laurencin, Graham Sutherland, and Giacomo Manzù. After Alexandre’s premature death in 1987, Elaine continued to pursue the family’s quest for restitution of art looted by the Nazis during the war. She was an active and influential Fellow of The Morgan Library and remained deeply involved with the Museum of Modern Art and the Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her generous bequests of the Paul Rosenberg Archives to MoMA in 2007, and of the splendid Prayer Book of Claude de France to The Morgan Library in 2008 were but two examples of her extensive philanthropy. She forged strong and lasting friendships with scholars and curators worldwide who loved her for her grace, intelligence, wit and characteristically direct manner. 

The illuminated manuscripts offered for sale represent the culmination of 15th- and 16th-century European manuscript painting, and are a testament to the discerning taste of Alexandre and Elaine Rosenberg. All highly individual, these manuscripts were not meant for the religious to use, not for clergy or monks in churches and monasteries, but for the delight of their lay owners. Beautiful, varied and highly personalized, through their pages the modern reader gets a very distinct sense of the original owner’s tastes, concerns and lives. Each manuscript presents an intimate gallery of miniature paintings by some of the most sought-after and accomplished artists of the French Renaissance: the Bedford Master, the Master of the Paris Bartholomaeus Anglicus, the Master of Jacques de Besançon, the Master of Jean de Mauléon; each manuscript stands out for its striking compositions, its jewel-like artworks, its sumptuous illumination or its understated, subtle elegance. Owned by some of the most important bibliophiles and collectors of their time – from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to the Earl of Ashburnham, Alfred Chester-Beatty, Henry Huth, William Randolph Hearst and André Hachette – several were exhibited at The Morgan Library in 1982 and appeared in John Plummer’s ground-breaking catalogue The Last Flowering: French painting in manuscripts, 1420-1530.

The printed books comprise over two hundred volumes printed in the 15th century and about a dozen Books of Hours, mostly printed on vellum, of the early 16th century.  The former is the most extensive collection of incunabula offered for public sale in decades. It is remarkable for the high proportion of volumes in their original 15th-century bindings, often elaborately decorated with tooling which can be localized to workshops in both Germany and across the Alps. The documentation of the geographical spread of printing in the first decades after Gutenberg must have had great resonance for Alexandre Rosenberg. He kept a mid-century map of Europe in his study and placed pins to mark the origins of the books in his collection. This is characteristic of the meticulousness of the Rosenberg family. The books were faithfully collated, described, photographed, and documented with receipts from the 1950s through the 1980s—providing a capsule view of the important auctions and dealers from these decades.

Hugely significant among the printed books is a complete first edition of the works of Plato. This edition was translated by Marsilio Ficino, one of the greatest scholars of Greek in the Renaissance, and printed in Florence by the nuns of San Jacopo di Ripoli.  Very little of Plato’s work had been accessible to Latin readers before Ficino’s translation and this edition marks the return of Plato’s philosophy to Western Europe after an absence of nearly 1000 years.  It is emblematic of the whole collection as, writ large, the incunabula document not only the development of the art of printing in its infancy but the rolling over of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. Ancient and medieval texts alike are here accompanied by humanist commentaries and in humanist translations—rediscoveries as well as old chestnuts seen with new eyes. Many of them contain extensive marginalia from 15th- and 16th-century readers, and several are from the collections of prominent Renaissance intellectuals including Willibald Pirckheimer and Lionardo Salviati, comprising a material expression of the intellectual achievements and transformations of the period.


The sale will be a live auction on April 23rd at 10am. Books are available for viewing at Christie’s New York by appointment only.  Please e-mail to make an appointment or with other questions.  Further details are available on all our upcoming auctions at