Brooklyn Roads: A Manuscript Provenance Story

Brooklyn Museum, Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn N. Y.
Brooklyn Museum, Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn NY

But as my mind walks through those places
I’m wonderin’
What’s come of them….

Neil Diamond, “Brooklyn Roads”

This is a story about trying to hunt down a medieval manuscript supposedly in the Brooklyn Museum.

It all started when I agreed to contribute an introduction and translation of the Latin Life of Mary Magdalene for Tony Burke’s third volume of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures. Only a few pieces have been published about the early medieval versions of the Latin Life of Mary Magdalene (much more has been written about later medieval developments). The few editions are more like preliminary studies than full collations, and no full conspectus of manuscripts exists.

One of my starting points was an article by Jean Misrahi published in 1943, with the first edition of the earliest version of the Latin Life of Mary Magdalene, which he had found in a manuscript in the Brooklyn Museum. (For another key article by J. E. Cross, see here.)

Misrahi gives a brief description of the manuscript, an Old Testament Bible–a tantalizing context for a biblical apocryphon. But he didn’t provide a shelfmark or any other identifying information for the manuscript.

Fortunately, Misrahi did leave some citations as bread-crumbs. So I started to follow those. First stop: Carlo Vercellone, Variae lectiones Vulgatae Latinae Bibliorum editionis (1860, xci); and then Seymour de Ricci and W. J. Wilson, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (1935-1940, 2:1193) provide general descriptions.

Carlo Vercellone, Variae lectiones Vulgatae Latinae Bibliorum editionis (1860, xci)
Seymour de Ricci and W. J. Wilson, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (1935-1940, 2:1193)

But, again, these resources provide no clear shelfmark or identifying information for the Bible manuscript in the Brooklyn Museum.

What about the Brooklyn Museum’s website? It turns out that they have a nice collection of digitized images of medieval artifacts available online (worth checking out!). They even have digitized images of several Books of Hours available online (also worth checking out!). Still, after many searches and attempts to find the Bible manuscript in the Brooklyn Museum online collection, I couldn’t find anything.

I decided to email the librarians. Knowing how much more information library collections have, and how much better librarians know about these sorts of issues, I sent an email to the Brooklyn Museum library account. And true to librarian form, I received generous and helpful responses that gave me new paths to follow.

The Brooklyn Museum Registrar’s Office had the information that I needed. Terry O’Hara summarized what the records indicate:

The bible manuscripts were deaccessioned from the collection on December 18, 1986 and were released to Sotheby’s London on January 14, 1987.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t state in the file at what auction the bible manuscripts were sold, but there’s a handwritten note dated July ’87 stating that the bibles sold at Sotheby’s London to a private Norwegian collector.

Terri O’Hara, via private correspondence, from Brooklyn Museum, Registrar’s Office, Accession Records for 15.273.1-2. With thanks for this information and permission to publish.

This could be a dead end, but sometimes more digging can help.

I figured that one next step would be to try to find some archives or old catalogs for Sotheby’s. After some searching around, though, I realized that I would need some more specialist knowledge about that. I thought briefly about asking some art historians or manuscript specialists about finding old auction information.

In the meantime, I was curious enough to try not only the most obvious but also the most roulette-like tactic: googling a word salad of keywords to see what might appear. So, in a move that felt like a mix between button-mashing and going all in on a single roulette spin. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I googled the keywords “sotheby’s 1987 bibles sold to norwegian collector brooklyn museum.”

I got lucky. On my first spin, I hit the jackpot.

The manuscript is now known as the “Saint Cecilia Bible” (for its origin) and is currently owned by the Museum of the Bible. Before that, it was bought (in the 1987 Sotheby’s auction) by Martin Schøyen for his famous Bible collection; then bought for the Green Collection in 2010; and, finally, donated to the Museum of the Bible in 2012. A full account of the Saint Cecilia Bible’s provenance is available on the Museum of the Bible’s website.

A little more research brought me to a few resources that I should have turned to before. The first was the excellent and helpful Directory of Collections in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings, compiled by Melissa Conway and Lisa Fagin Davis (2015). They had already done the work to identify the Sotheby’s auction (June 23, 1987), lot number (72), and Schøyen as the buyer. The second is the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, which confirmed the same information about Schøyen purchasing the manuscript.

As indicated in the information I received from the Brooklyn Museum, the library also owned a second bible (de Ricci and Wilson, Census, 2:1194), from the thirteenth century, signed by the scribe Johannes de Cortona.

de Ricci and Wilson, Census (2:1193)

This bible was presumably sold in 1987, when the Brooklyn Museum deaccessioned it, although I have not found any record of that sale, so the provenance from 1987 to 2011 is unknown. The bible was sold again (buyer unknown) in a Christie’s auction in London on June 8, 2011 (see the Schoenberg Database record).

The final piece of information about the Saint Cecilia Bible, which I had learned only because of googling, was the last shift of the manuscript’s provenance, from the Schøyen Collection to the Museum of the Bible.

Tracing the provenance of the Saint Cecilia Bible, I suddenly found myself in the territory of controversyscandal, and debates about the ethics of heritage preservation surrounding private collections. Recently, Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden have discussed such concerns with the Museum of the Bible in their book Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (2018), while Christopher Prescott and Josephine Munch Rasmussen have examined issues of cultural heritage preservation regarding the Schøyen Collection. Just as I was writing this up, National Geographic published a story saying that the “Dead Sea Scrolls” at the Museum of the Bible have been identified as modern forgeries. I won’t wade into all of these issues, since they don’t seem directly related to the provenance of the Saint Cecilia Bible, but they are worth mentioning.

In the end, I found the manuscript and was able to track its provenance. I’m glad to know where the manuscript now resides, even if a private collection isn’t ideal for previous artifacts like this. (I can hear Indiana Jones pronouncing, “It belongs in a museum!”)

This research also highlights for me how fortunate we are to have public institutions with manuscript collections that they hold onto. That isn’t to blame or shame others like the Brooklyn Museum, who likely had good reasons (and they’re often financial) for deaccessioning manuscripts. But we should appreciate those institutions that have made the provenances of their manuscripts clear, kept hold of these valuable artifacts, and especially those that have attempted to offer open-access digitized facsimiles online.


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