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The Book Market and Manuscript Preservation

The Book of Hours

Books were extremely important in medieval times, not only because they were objects of status, but also because they often had great religious importance. A Medieval Book of Hours would have been a devotional symbol and a guide for moments of private devotion to God. Based on the calendar, the owner of the book would be able to understand which prayers to say at what time, and therefore achieve a sort of harmony between the ever-present spirituality of their world and their secular world. These manuscripts are especially important because they were handmade, and laboriously copied. Therefore, each one has individuality to it, as they were not mass-produced, but rather commissioned on a small scale. Greatly valued for both their material and spiritual value, many books have survived to this date, and are sought by many collectors. The Lipscomb Manuscript itself, was donated by Dr. Lipscomb to Randolph Macon Woman’s College from his estate, and is presumed to be a lower level French Book of Hours, with a more recent Italian binding.

The Manuscript Market

“Art acts as a goodwill ambassador,” promoting “interest in and admiration for the people of the country of its origin.”[1] Art that crosses international boundaries also “eliminates parochialism and promotes international understanding” to and extent.[2] Therefore, the acquisition of art is a very complex, well-regulated process.

Medieval manuscripts today are highly valued, and the market for them has grown exponentially. Partially this is due to the means in which most art is acquired today: through auction houses where prices tend to skyrocket and do not always accurately reflect the actual market value of the type of art being considered. In fact, “the art market itself has become more of a financial market,” in recent years, as antiquities have come to be increasingly viewed as investments, instead of art.[3] Barring these problems, the sale in manuscripts has been especially productive for the auction houses. While it may seem that the closing down of manuscript specializing offices throughout the world is indicative of a failing market, in fact, the manuscript market has consolidated for the most part in London in order to reach the most clients. By focusing in one major area, the houses increase profits by catering to a more universal clientele, saving money overall.[4] The elite auction houses however, have not discouraged private dealers, and other companies from holding transactions involving medieval manuscripts.[5] In other cases, the market has even reached Internet sites such as Ebay and other online retailers. The market can easily be said to be growing because it reaches so many different demographics, and more and more people can buy lesser works now through these internet sites.

Acquisition of Manuscripts

Auction houses, independent dealers, and Internet sites monopolize the sale of manuscripts. At times manuscripts may be donated to museums or other institutions, but this is not generally as common, and it still has involved a buyer along the line purchasing the item. Auction houses and independent dealers however, are generally the most reliable sources for manuscripts. They tend to try and sell more complete items, while the other sources often compromise the integrity of the manuscript in order to achieve the highest possible returns. In these cases, single leafs are sold, as opposed to the entire manuscript. Leafs are sold by auction houses, but generally because they are so extraordinary by themselves, or because the rest of the collection cannot be acquired. Sotheby’s and Christies are two of the foremost houses and tend to supply the buyer with some assurances. Both houses have experts appraise the items up for sale, and attempt to establish a reliable provenance for the art.[6] Unfortunately, as more people try to acquire manuscripts, the black market increasingly grows.

Art Law

Unfortunately, for “centuries the international art market functioned virtually without any effective legal, moral or ethical restraints.”[7] In the world of medieval manuscripts, this has resulted in manuscripts being damaged, often cut apart to sell individual pages. Today many laws are in place through the efforts of UNESCO, and other culturally conscious lobbying groups.[8] These laws can be broken down into three major categories: Protection of Cultural Heritage, Theft/Destruction, and Transportation of Art. In recent years, there have been a multitude of laws and “regulations on import of art and on the disposition of cultural artifacts.”[9] Many countries have enacted barriers against removing culturally significant objects from their country of origin. In many cases, governments feel that art created within a certain period of time is virtually inextricable from the nation’s national identity. Penalties for taking such objects generally result in fines, imprisonment, and always loss of the object in question. Manuscripts deemed to be culturally important in both the EU and the UK are subject to certain laws that require the buyer to have his purchase approved before it can leave the country.[10]

In order to prevent theft and destruction, governments have attempted to “reconcile the international demand for art…with the need for [its] protection.”[11] Many objects are destroyed when they are torn out of their cultural context, and many scholars are unable to retrieve valuable historical information because then they are only able to deal with fragmentary remains. “Elginism,” a phrase coined by the destructive actions of Lord Elgin who illegally transported cultural objects from Greece, has had a profound, negative effect on the art world.[12]  The art market has especially been harmed by this, as laws to protect art became so harsh as a result, that they actually encourage fringe black market activity.

Transportation of valuable art is also a major area of art law. Today, it is very easy to transport art made by living artists, but art that has been around for centuries often is harder to transport. Fees must often be paid in order to obtain the right to travel with expensive art. In the case of manuscripts however, regardless of their value, a license to carry and transport them must be obtained – especially for travel in the EU.

Auctioning Laws

Auction houses are regulated by outside and internal systems. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s inform potential buyers that they sell every article “as is.” However, each has a system to reimburse the buyer in certain circumstances if the object in question can be proven to be a fake. During the actual bidding, absentee, telephone, and written bids are also considered. However, once the hammer price has been reached, the buyer must pay both this and the buyer premium, along with any international taxes required.[13] In the case of manuscripts, especially expensive ones, at this time a buyer could also purchase an export/transport license.[14] Even after an item has been purchased, the auction house still may retain and used copywritten photographs of the item.[15] In order to assure the fairness and legitimacy of the system, museums and other institutions are good policing agents.

Emerging Issues in Art Law

In the future there are a variety of emerging concerns in the field of art law. New laws will be needed within decades to better control the copyrights of works of art online. Other laws might need to be enacted in order to guarantee that not everything ends up in a private collection. As prices on important manuscripts increase, museums find it harder and harder to compete with private collectors; laws might be needed to ensure that museums can stay competitive in the art market – as they are the guardians of the publics’ right to art. In further years, it might be possible to enact laws dictating the preservation of certain works of art. Unfortunately this would be difficult, as the legal rights of private property owners often supersede others.

Preserving Manuscripts

Once a manuscript has been acquired, certain measures should be taken in order to preserve it. In earlier years, many manuscripts were sealed in airtight containers in order to regulate the amount of humidity and bacteria that they would be exposed to otherwise. In recent years however, it has become obvious that this might not be the best way to preserve manuscripts in the long run.

Projects involving digitalization have become increasingly explored. Digitizing images makes them more accessible to the public and also gives researchers a lasting record of the image. Through this process, the original can be stored in an optimal environment and never need to be handled again. Unfortunately, digitalization takes some of the experience away from the viewer, and is incredibly expensive to maintain the computer support systems.

In the 1990’s a program was started by the Library of Congress to determine the best ways to preserve and make documents accessible to researchers. As part of the project, an experiment involving the digitization of documents was put into place. The major goals of the project were to “develop…capabilities for providing computerized access to collections,” and to determine what options were actually the most viable.[16] They came up with an idea of “preservation reformatting,” in which documents are copied digitally with attention to the faithfulness of the copy and to the longevity of the copy.[17] They also determined that the “longevity of a digital image depends upon organization, production, and financial commitment.”[18] Other goals included creating a triage system of choosing “quality” objects for the best preservation, while other objectives involved finding the best computer system to support the high quality copies indefinitely. They also decided that image degradation, while unfortunate, was worth the loss because a decrease in file size would make it easier to store and access the information on the web.

Drawbacks of Digitalization

Many people will agree that the natural look and texture of the document are important to the character of the object. Once digitalized, either the image is high quality and gives a hint of the actual look and texture, or the image is deemed less important to researchers and is merely copied for the information it contains. Also problematic is the idea that people are choosing objects for their importance, over trying to preserve all manuscripts. However, this option is definitely more cost effective and does adhere to the “practicalities of production.”[19] Perhaps a better project would be to digitalize all images at the same level, maybe not in the highest quality or most in the most pixilated form, but at an acceptable viewable level. Then the actual manuscripts could be preserved and accessed by scholars on a smaller scale. This procedure would both preserve the character of the original and make the basics of the manuscript available all over the world – in an effective smaller style.


As the art market grows, becoming accessible to more people, new regulations will be needed. As it was centuries ago, the Lipscomb Manuscript is a very valuable piece of art. It provides scholars with a glimpse into the religious life of an individual and should be preserved in an effective manner. Concerning preservation, at this point in time, digitization seems to be the best way to ensure the survival of manuscripts. While the actual experience of viewing the original will be lost to many, in the long run it is better to have preserved the original because technology in the future might be able to make the originals more accessible to the public. Preservation is a difficult problem to solve, but there is hope that emerging technology will solve many of these problems.

[1] Leonard D. DuBoff. Art Law: In a Nutshell. West Publishing Co., St. Paul, Minnesota: 1984. (9).

[2] DuBoff. Art Law. (9).

[3] James Heilbrun and Charles M. Grey. The Economics of Art and Culture: An American Perspective. Cambridge University Press, New York: 1993. (152).

[4] Conversation with Don Williams (4-20-03).

[5] Conversation with Don Williams (4-20-03).

[6] Christie's London Catalogue. British Pictures 1500-1850. 6-15-01. (8, 132-142)., Sotheby’s New York Catalogue. Old Master and 19th Century European Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture. 7-17,18-97. (iv).

[7] DuBoff. Art Law. (10).

[8] http://whc.unesco.org/nwhc/pages/doc/main.htm

[9] DuBoff. Art Law. (9).

[10] Christies Catalogue. (134).

[11] DuBoff. Art Law. (10).

[12] DuBoff. Art Law. (13).

[13] Sotheby’s and Christies Catalogues

[14] Christies Catalogue. 134.

[15] Christies Catalogue. 139.

[16, 17, 18, 19] http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/pictel/


These pages are the work of the students enrolled in Art 238, "Art and Medieval Mentalities," taught by Professor Christine Hamza during the Spring Semester, 2003.

The format of this site was last updated:  October 2, 2017.