The Story of the Beauvais Missal


The style of the script and illumination suggest that the manuscript was produced towards the end of the thirteenth century. According to an inscription on the lost first leaf, recorded by Sotheby's in 1926, the manuscript was given to the Beauvais Cathedral by the Canon Robert of Hangest, in exchange for a promise that the priest would say a memorial mass for him every year on November 3. Archival documents record that the manuscript was given in 1356, the year Hangest died. The book remained in the library for four hundred and fifty years, clearly identified in several library inventories. The Cathedral library was dispersed, as were most ecclesiastical collections, during the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. The missal disappeared at that time, but surfaced again several decades later as part of the collection of Didier Petit de Meurville. In 1843, the Beauvais Missal –newly bound and gilt by Lyon binder Bruyère – was  purchased by Henri Auguste Brölemann, a commercial broker in Lyon, from whom it passed through several generations to his great-granddaughter and heiress, Madame Etienne Mallet. She sold the manuscript at Sotheby's on May 4th, 1926 (lot 161) for £970 to dealer William Permain. Peter Kidd recently discovered that Permain was acting as an agent for none other than William Randolph Hearst, who brought the manuscript to the U.S. Hearst owned the codex for sixteen years before selling it for $1,000 in October 1942 through Gimbel Brothers, to New York dealer Philip Duschnes.

Duschnes was a notorious book-breaker, and the Beauvais Missal was not spared. Less than a month after the Hearst sale, he began offering single pages of the manuscript for $25 - $40 apiece, depending on the amount of gold decoration found on the particular leaf. Duschnes only needed to sell 40 of the cheap leaves to break even. With more than 300 leaves to offer, he stood to make an enormous profit.

Duschnes counted among his friends and business associates fellow biblioclast Otto Ege. Ege spent most of his career as a professor of art history in Cleveland, Ohio. He was a collector of manuscripts, recorded in the de Ricci Census, but he was also a bookdealer. He is best known for breaking apart hundreds of manuscripts and early printed books in the 1930s and 1940s, selling them off leaf by leaf. He wasn’t the first to do this of course; dealers like Duschnes had figured out that economies of scale worked in their favor if they sold 250 leaves to 250 buyers instead of one manuscript to one buyer. Writing in 1938, Ege defended his “biblioclasm” with what he considered the noble goal of putting a little bit of the Middle Ages within the economic grasp of even the humblest collector or smallest institution. “Few, indeed,” he wrote, “can hope to own a complete manuscript book; hundreds, however, may own a leaf.”

After removing the leaves he intended to offer for sale, Duschnes passed the remnants on to Ege, who distributed leaves through his usual means, by gift or sale. Ege’s widow Louise distributed several dozen as No. 15 in the Fifty Original Leaves portfolio, around forty of which were assembled and marketed after Ege’s death in 1951.

The 99 known leaves of the Beauvais Missal are scattered across the world, in 26 states and five countries (Canada, Japan, Monaco, Norway, and England).

The Story of the Beauvais Missal