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Rare Western Books on Way to Far East

September 30, 1987|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Carrie Estelle Doheny's dream of assembling and preserving in California a leading collection of the rare works of Western Civilization will begin to fade Thursday in Tokyo.

In the first of three globe-spanning stops, 60 books and manuscripts from the 15,000-volume Doheny Collection--including the Old Testament volume of a 15th-Century Gutenberg Bible, the first known book printed from movable type--will go on display at the offices of Christie's, the international auction house based in London.

Wealthy Japanese Collectors

The three-day showing for wealthy Japanese book collectors will be followed by exhibitions in Munich and London before the collection's rare books, manuscripts, art and other objects are sold in a series of seven auctions beginning Oct. 22 in New York.

This apparently unprecedented worldwide attempt to whet the appetites of individual and institutional buyers is expected to reap for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles--to whom the collection was donated in 1940--$20 million or more. The archdiocese says the proceeds will be used to strengthen its seminary system, which last year produced only six new priests to serve the region's 2.65 million Catholics.

The Gutenberg Bible is expected to alone sell for $1.5 million to $2 million. The last sale of a Gutenberg Bible, a complete edition of Old and New testaments, went for $2.2 million in 1978. Some experts believe the sale of the Doheny Bible will be the last time a Gutenberg changes hands in this century.

When it was announced by the archdiocese last February, the breakup of the Doheny collection--housed in a library adjacent to St. John's Seminary in Camarillo--was lamented by some California scholars, historians and librarians who maintained that selling the collection would disperse a scholarly treasure-trove of Western Civilization, particularly for researchers in early theological texts.

Now the emphasis seems to be on keeping at least some of the collection in the state.

"Our feeling is that anything that can be kept in California--that would be very good news," said Daniel Woodward, librarian at the Huntington Library in San Marino. "In a way this is kind of a last opportunity (to buy) some of these things, so it will be sad if some of them leave California."

Woodward added that the Huntington hoped to participate in the bidding but he declined to discuss specifics.

UCLA special collections librarian David Zeidberg said he is concerned that competition for items from the collection will drive prices beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest bidders and thus exclude institutions like UCLA. The state-supported university can't use public money to acquire items at auction, Zeidberg said, adding that as of now the library has no money from private donors to enter the bidding.

Stephen Massey, director of Christie's book department, declined to predict how high prices might go. "If prices weren't going up from year to year, nobody would be in the rare-book business," he said in a telephone interview from the Netherlands. "But I don't like this business of trying to decide how high is high, how up is up."

Moreover, Massey said, he doesn't expect the exhibit in Japan--the first known appearance of a Gutenberg Bible in Asia--to bring "the entire population of Tokyo beating down our doors to look at a 15th-Century Bible."

While the Japanese have been enthusiastic collectors of Western literature and works of economics and science, "they're not specifically Bible collectors," Massey said.

While the Gutenberg Bible--one of only 48 in the world and still in its original binding--will attract the most attention at the Oct. 22 auction, Massey said many other books are expected to attract substantial interest. For example, a book of hand-colored woodblock prints of Biblical scenes printed in the Netherlands about 1460 is expected to sell for $400,000 to $500,000, he said. A 1470 book, "Epistolare of St. Jerome," is expected to bring $400,000 to $600,000.

Declaration of Independence

The collection, which includes autographed letters of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence and manuscript material by Mark Twain, as well as many early or unusual Bibles, was assembled over decades by Carrie Estelle Doheny, wife of a land developer and oil tycoon who also was a devout Catholic.

She and her husband, Edward, made substantial donations to the church, particularly the seminary in Camarillo. Carrie Estelle Doheny, who died in 1958, was named a papal countess by Pope Pius XII in 1939. In her will she stipulated that the collection be kept intact for at least 25 years after her death.

The Doheny collection will be dispersed in a series of seven auctions. The sale of 15th-Century books including the Gutenberg will be followed Dec. 2 with an auction of Medieval and illuminated manuscripts in London.

Two sales, Feb. 1-2 and Feb. 3-4, will be held at Camarillo. These will include items of Western Americana, literature, fine printing, manuscripts, furniture, paintings, prints, paperweights, decorative objects, jewelry, parasols, lace and fans. The last sale from the Doheny collection is scheduled for May 19, 1989.

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