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L.A. Archdiocese to Auction Off Its Gutenberg Bible

February 28, 1987|RUSSELL CHANDLER and SAM ENRIQUEZ | Times Staff Writers

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles is auctioning off the major portion of a vast collection of artwork and rare books--including a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the first known book printed from movable type--to generate funds for the archdiocese's seminary system.

The series of sales of the Carrie Estelle Doheny collection through a prestigious auction house is expected to generate revenues of between $17 million and $24 million and to attract major interest in the art and business worlds, an archdiocese communications official said Friday.

Although it was not immediately known which other items will be sold, the Doheny collection includes more than 7,000 rare books, Western paintings, paintings from the French Barbizon School, antique glass paperweights, tapestries, antique furnishings and autographed letters.

Father Joseph Battaglia said the Doheny Bible is likely to be the last Gutenberg to be sold this century.

The Doheny volume is one of 47 known surviving copies of the 42-lines-per-column Gutenberg Bible, which Johann Gutenberg first printed in Mainz, Germany, in 1449 or 1450. The Doheny Bible is not among the 21 complete copies because it contains only the Old Testament.

The most recent sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible fetched a record $2 million with lightning speed at a 1978 auction held by Christie's. The last previous sale of a complete Gutenberg--for $106,000--was at a 1926 auction handled by the predecessor to Sotheby's.

2 in California

The Doheny Bible and collection have been housed in the Edward Laurence Doheny Memorial Library in Camarillo, adjacent to St. John's Seminary.

The only other Gutenberg Bible in California is another incomplete copy in the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino.

The nation's two largest auction houses--Sotheby's and Christie's--vied to handle the Doheny collection, but London-based Christie's was selected, The Times has learned.

Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony was in Washington on Friday and was not available for comment, but Battaglia said the prelate would present details of which items will be sold and how the funds from the auctions will be used during a Los Angeles press conference Monday.

Tripling the Seminarians

In a Feb. 5 speech at St. John's Seminary College, Mahony called for a tripling of the number of seminarians in the archdiocese, a dramatic increase in the number of ordinations, and extensive recruiting of candidates for the priesthood from among the diverse ethnic groups in the three-county archdiocese.

Last year, the archdiocese, which includes 2.65 million Catholics, produced only six new priests. Seminary college enrollment at St. John's is currently 78. The three facilities in the system are a high school seminary, Our Lady Queen of Angels in San Fernando, and St. John's college and theology seminaries in Camarillo.

Since the college seminary opened in Camarillo 25 years ago, 2,200 seminarians have studied at St. John's; more than 800 of them have been ordained as priests, Mahony said.

Battaglia said that while some of the money generated by sale of the collection will be used for capital improvements in the school facilities, a major commitment will be made "to the training of the priesthood."

Dedication Rites

The 1940 dedication of the library and theology seminary was presided over by Archbishop John J. Cantwell; at the time, the Carrie Estelle Doheny collection of manuscripts, rare books and objects of art was valued at more than $1 million. The Gutenberg Bible was added to the collection by Doheny in 1950.

The massive collection is housed in three rooms on the second floor of the two-story, pink-stucco library, which was built with funds donated by Doheny. Her husband, Edward Doheny, an early California land developer and oil magnate, had made substantial contributions to build St. John's Seminary during fund-raising campaigns of the mid-1920s, according to a history of the seminary written by Msgr. Francis J. Weber in 1966.

After Edward Doheny's death, his widow offered to build a library and donate her collection to the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Other Works Added

Carrie Estelle Doheny, who was named a papal countess by Pope Pius XII in 1939--the first such bestowal of pontifical nobility ever granted in Southern California--continued to add to the collection until she died in 1958.

The only condition of her gift to the archdiocese was that the collection remain intact for at least 25 years after her death.

The Doheny collection has been used as a reference for both students and scholars of early theological literature, curator Rita S. Faulders said in a recent interview. The collection's original curator, Lucille V. Miller, said at the time of her death that Doheny intended "that it be left intact and made available to students," according to Weber's written history.

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