Last week, a collection of rare books owned by late New York philanthropists Elaine and Alexander Rosenberg brought in $12.4 million at a Christie’s auction in New York. The sale, which featured 17 rare illuminated manuscripts and nearly 200 printed books from the Medieval and Renaissance eras, outperformed its $8 million low estimate and realized a 98 percent sell-through rate by lot.
Per the will of Elaine Rosenberg, who died in January 2020, all proceeds from the sale will benefit the rare books collections of four tristate area museums with which she and her husband had close ties: the Museum of Modern Art, the Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library, and the Redwood Athenaeum.
The Rosenberg sale spurred renewed attention for a collecting category that peaked back in the 1990s. Because of the rarity of tomes such as these, auction houses only stage a sale of this caliber once every few decades.
In an interview with ARTnews, Eugenio Donadoni, a Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts specialist at Christie’s, described the Rosenberg books collection as the most significant one offered at auction in five decades. “This was a once-in-a-generation auction,” Donadoni said.
The top lot of the sale was a French illuminated manuscript attributed to the anonymous artist known as the Master of the Paris Bartholomeus Anglicus. Titled the Parisian Book of Hours (ca. 1440) and comprising 16 miniature paintings, the book sold for $3.6 million, against an estimate of $1.5 million. The last time it sold at auction was in 1977, when the Rosenbergs acquired it for $200,000—meaning that its value has multiplied by 18 times since then.
The second-most expensive lot of the auction was a first-edition book by Plato, which sold for a record-setting $1 million, against an estimate of $200,000. That result marks the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by Plato.
Together with her husband, art dealer Alexander Rosenberg, who died in 1987, philanthropist Elaine Rosenberg amassed the collection over several decades. In addition to her collecting and philanthropy, Elaine was known for her pursuit of the restitution of around 400 works of art that once belonged to her late husband’s father, the prominent French art dealer Paul Rosenberg. These works had been confiscated by the Nazis during World War II. She gifted his extensive archive to the MoMA in 2007. In 2008, she gave the Prayer Book of Claude de France to the Morgan Library, where she served as a fellow.