The Romance of a Famous Library

THE dispersion of a great collection of books has necessarily its aspect of melancholy. The chagrin is less keen, however, when the greatness of the collection has consisted rather in the richness of the individual items than in their aggregate importance as representative of any one subject. Of such a character was that portion of the Ashburnham library recently auctioned off in London. Exceeding as was the interest of the items individually, they had no special significance in juxtaposition. Their dispersion, therefore, but carries forward another stage the wanderings to which books of their class are subject, and which make their career one of incessant adventure.

But the sale which brings to an end this famous library naturally recalls its origins, and these in turn an episode perhaps the most extraordinary, involving circumstances among the most picturesque, in bibliothecal history. This episode has in it so much that is suggestive of the vicissitudes which the literary treasures of Europe have undergone that, even apart from its special relation to the Ashburnham collection, it seems now to deserve recital in full.1

About the year 1830 there came to Paris from Florence one William Brutus Timoleon Libri-Carrucci. He professed the title of count, and explained himself as a refugee from political persecution. As Florence was at this time the scene of various political disorders, he was very likely a fugitive from prosecution, if not from persecution. He was only twentyseven years old, but his talents soon commended him to Arago, who made him a protégé. He became a naturalized French citizen in 1833, and very shortly, in succession, a member of the Institute, a member of the Faculty of Sciences of Paris, a contributor to the Journal des Savants, and, in 1843, professor in the College of France. His early interest was mathematics, but soon he turned to the history of science, and then to bibliography and palæography. His aptitude for these latter studies appears to have been remarkable. His taste for old books and old manuscripts, rendered definite and substantial as it was by erudition, soon became a passion. He formed a design for amassing a great collection of his own, but before he had gone far with this he seems to have been touched with cupidities purely mercantile, and thereafter he gave up almost his entire time to the purchase and sale of rare books, manuscripts, and autographs. In 1837 he had been considered for a position in the National Library; two years later he was an applicant for one, but his application did not succeed. The minister of public instruction sent him a polite note of regret, which, however, threw him into a rage of mortified vanity. At the time this took the form merely of a sarcastic letter to the minister, but seems to have found other satisfaction later in such injury as he could contrive against the library itself and French libraries in general. In 1841, under a different minister, a project was formed for a general catalogue of the manuscripts in the public (communal) libraries of France, and Libri was named the secretary of a commission charged with the preliminaries of this undertaking. In the course of the following year, fortified with letters of introduction from the minister, he made a tour of the most important of these libraries. Now, it is in these institutions that are preserved many of the most precious of the literary legacies of the Dark Ages and of the Middle Ages. This is true of Dijon, Lyons, Grenoble, Carpentras, Montpellier, and Poitiers, but especially of Tours and of Orleans. The town library of Tours, for instance, contains the spoils of the old abbey of Marmoutier, of the famous community of St. Martin of Tours, of the cathedral chapter, and of many minor convents and churches. It boasts an evangeliary of the eighth century ; a charter given by Henry II. of England to the Carthusians whom he established in England as part of the expiatory offering for the murder of Thomas à Becket; several manuscripts of Boethius of the ninth and tenth centuries; material rich in contribution to local archive, to religious history, of course, but the classics also : Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Horaces of the ninth and tenth centuries, Lucans and Virgils of the tenth and eleventh. These libraries, representing in large part spoils from religious institutions, had undergone strange vicissitudes: that of Tours had undergone the sack of Tours by the Normans in the ninth century, the pillage by the Protestants in 1652, and the vandalism of the revolutionary epoch ; and with all the rest it had suffered a continual petty pillage by amateurs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The year 1842 found most of these collections in sad disorder, ill housed, ill catalogued, and without proper custodians.

Count Libri, however, brought to his examination of them a knowledge of their value, and in the ignorance and negligence of their custodians he found his opportunity. Proceeding systematically and at his leisure, he culled out and carried off with him some of the best of the manuscripts; here taking the full volume, sometimes substituting for it one of less value, sometimes taking only sections of a volume ; varying his practice, apparently, as he found the material in more or less disorder, and the attendants more or less intelligent or careful.2 In this way he seems to have garnered several hundreds of manuscripts, among them some of the most precious of the literary heirlooms of France.

On returning to Paris, he set about disfiguring the manuscripts. One purpose of this was, of course, to insure against detection, — against their identification as having come from these particular libraries; but his design seems to have gone beyond this. Perhaps it was malice for the old affront that he had received from France ; perhaps it was merely the proper patriotism of a native of Italy; at all events, he put much ingenuity into alterations which should indicate an Italian in place of a French origin. He erased such notes as existed indicating the latter, and inserted notes indicating Italian origin. Some very slight changes sufficed, — the erasure of one earmark, and the substitution of another. Of the phrases substituted, “ Est sancti Petri de Perusio ” was one ; “ Liber Abbatiæ Sancti Maria de Florentia,” another; “ Sancte Justina de Padua,” another. The Latin names for Fleury and for Florence (the one Floriacum, the other Florentia) were so nearly alike that by changing the last three syllables in the adjectival form of the first he was able to attribute to a Florentine church one of the incomparable manuscripts of the abbey of Fleury. In this way, the credit of beautiful manuscripts which gave eloquent testimony to the literary activities of the ancient schools of St. Denis, of Lyons, of Tours, of Orleans, was transferred to the religious houses of Grotta Ferrata, Padua, Pistoia, Perugia, Mantua, Verona, and Florence. As an additional safeguard, Libri had many of the old French bindings taken off, and Italian bindings substituted.

All these erasures, insertions, and forgeries were done with exquisite skill and learning, reproducing the characters appropriate to the period with which the main body of the manuscript in each case corresponded. Finally, Libri hoped to cloak the stolen manuscripts under a collection bought by him from an Italian, Francesco Redi, and to this end he forged upon some of them the name of Francesco Redi.

Now, to these various manuscripts, so disguised, — rendered in many cases unrecognizable by inversion of sections or of leaves, or by being dissected and having their fragments scattered through various volumes, —Libri added material stolen from the National Library and other Paris libraries, and some material no doubt legitimately acquired. In 1845 he issued a catalogue of this collection, comprising about 2000 items; but he seems not to have pressed the sale in France. He corresponded with Panizzi of the British Museum, and Panizzi undertook to negotiate a sale to the Museum, without, however, mentioning Libri’s name. These endeavors coming to nothing, Libri tried to treat with the University of Turin; this also failed. There then ensued a negotiation with the Earl of Ashburnham.

The Earl of Ashburnham was one of those wealthy British noblemen with the fancies of a collector, with a countryseat and with ample funds. Libri’s collection was brought to his attention first through the medium of an official of the Museum, John Holmes ; but the utmost secrecy was urged and insisted upon, on both sides. If Libri’s insistence upon secrecy mystified Lord Ashburnham, it did not, apparently, lead him to inquiry. He engaged a bookseller, named Rodd, to act for him. Rodd was to go to Paris, and to bring back with him a couple of items as samples of the collection. He went and examined the manuscripts, and selected two volumes. One of these appears to have been a Pentateuch stolen by Libri from the library of Tours. On the strength of this exhibit, and assuming the rest of the collection to be as indicated in the catalogue, Lord Ashburnham bought it entire for the sum of £8000. In April, 1847, it was shipped, and duly arrived at Ashburnham Place.

At about the same time with this sale of his manuscripts, Libri announced a sale of his printed books. But inconvenient rumors had begun to circulate as to the origins of his collection. He received intimation of a criminal prosecution, and fled to England, trailing after him eighteen boxes of books. In 1850 a regular indictment was issued against him, and he was condemned, on non-appearance, to ten years’ imprisonment.

In spite of his flight he continued to assert his innocence, and his friends, of whom he numbered many among the savants, contended hotly for it. Paul Lacroix was persistent on his behalf, and Prosper Mérimée was so fiery in defending him as to subject himself to a fortnight’s imprisonment. The battle waged back and forth for years. In time Libri left England and withdrew to Fiesole, where he died on the 28th of September, 1869.

In the meantime Ashburnham Place gained distinction throughout Europe by the presence there of a collection of such extraordinary richness. Two years after the purchase of the Libri material, Lord Ashburnham bought a second collection, — also in part culled from the libraries of France. This collection, containing some 700 numbers, he bought for £6000 from a Frenchman named Barrois. Barrois appears to be entitled to rank, not as a thief, but as a receiver of stolen goods. He was accustomed to purchase material purloined from the National Library and other libraries of France, and to disguise it in somewhat the same manner as did Libri. It would naturally be supposed that Lord Ashburnham would have had his suspicions aroused by the proceedings against Libri, and would have looked with hesitation upon material so nearly akin to that which Libri was accused of having stolen ; but if he had a suspicion, he did not permit _ it to defeat his ambition of raising Ashburnham Place to renown as the seat of a great collector.

In 1849 there came into the English market a very famous English collection, known as the Stowe collection. It grew out of the library of manuscripts formed by the keeper of the records in the Tower. It comprised 996 numbers, — Anglo-Saxon charters, wardrobe books, state correspondence, early English homilies, registers, cartularies of English monasteries, heraldic manuscripts, and the Irish collections of Dr. O’Connor ; being mostly manuscripts of the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. This collection, also, Lord Ashburnham bought for a lump sum of £8000.

Finally, miscellaneous material, consisting of about 250 manuscripts, purchased from various sources at the cost of about £8000, completed a collection which has been one of the most famous of modern times, — famous, not on account of its size (for the entire library comprised less than 4000 items, of which the Libri section made up 1923), but from the extraordinary nature of the material of which it was composed. Nor was its reputation due to any urgent publicity. On the contrary, in the hands of the elder earl it seems to have been kept unusually secluded even for a private library. Indeed, there was some complaint that it was unreasonably inaccessible to scholars. It would be unfair to assert that such privacy was due to a doubt on the part of the owner as to the legitimacy of his title. That he was not wholly oblivious, however, of an antecedent fraud — as regards the Libri section — would appear from a letter written by him to Delisle in 1869, in which the following passage occurs : “ I am naturally most interested in your observations upon manuscripts in my possession. My books are in the country, and therefore I will not speak positively to the fact that the Pentateuch, which, according to Signor Libri, came from Grotta Ferrata, does not contain any note to that effect, but such is my impression. This, however, is of little consequence, for Libri states the fact in his catalogue, and other manuscripts from his collection contain what I have long suspected and what you state to be fraudulent attempts to conceal the true ‘ Unde derivantur ’ of property that has been lost or stolen. The numbers 1, 6, 14, in Libri’s catalogue are all important manuscripts, and, if I mistake not, are clearly traceable to churches and monasteries at or in the neighborhood of Tours.”

In 1878 the elder Lord Ashburnham died, and a couple of years later his son announced that he was about to dispose of the Ashburnham library by sale. He offered it first to the British Museum, and set the price at £160,000. (Its actual cost, thirty years before, had been £32,000.) The Museum authorities, after a careful examination, were urgent for purchase, and petitioned Parliament for a special grant for the purpose ; and to further the negotiation Lord Ashburnham intimated that he had received proposals from an American for the entire collection. In the meantime France had awakened to a sense of its own interest in the matter. Delisle had been investigating: he now warned the trustees of the British Museum that the Libri and Barrois collections contained many manuscripts stolen from French libraries and falsified. He selected particular items, — fourteen of the most ancient of the Libri manuscripts, —and adduced evidence to show that in 1842 they had been in the libraries at Lyons, Tours, Troyes, and Orleans. He secured the appointment by the French government of a commission to act for France, and furnished this commission with a list of 166 titles as to which he claimed his evidence to be conclusive. This commission arranged with the British Museum that in case the Museum should purchase the entire Ashburnham library these 166 manuscripts should be returned to France, on the payment by the latter of 600,000 francs, which was deemed a fair proportion on the basis of 4,000,000 francs for the entire library. Unfortunately, the British government declined to consider the purchase of the entire library for the Museum, assenting finally to the purchase of the Stowe collection alone, for the sum of £45,000 (for which the elder earl had paid £8000 thirty years before).

Meanwhile, Delisle had had correspondence directly with Lord Ashburnham ; he had been particularly positive in his assertions as to “No. 7 ” of the Libri collection, claiming that it was composed simply of sections torn by Libri in 1842 from the Pentateuch “ No. 329 ” of Lyons. Lord Ashburnham demanded proof. Delisle replied with an offer to submit his evidence to the librarians of the British Museum, of the Bodleian, and of Cambridge. Lord Ashburnham rejoined with an offer to consider the evidence himself. The evidence presented was a statement by a German, Fleck, in a book of travels published at Leipsic in 1835, describing the Pentateuch as examined by him at Lyons. On this information Lord Ashburnham admitted the proof to be complete, and placed in the hands of Leon Say, the French ambassador at London, the fragments of the precious Pentateuch, which, he said, “the law of England would authorize him to retain, but which he would insist upon making a gift to France.”

The grace of this episode was somewhat marred by an acrimonious correspondence later, upon Delisle’s assertion that the above statement was an admission that all the Libri manuscripts had been stolen from France.

The French government offered 700,000 francs for the Libri and Barrois collections together, assuming that this sum, representing twice the amount paid by the elder earl, would be an adequate price ; but Lord Ashburnham called their attention to the fact that interest had not been figured. In 1883, however, he offered to sell the Libri, the Barrois, and the Appendix together, which had cost his father £22,000, for £140,000.

In both the Libri collection and the Appendix were many manuscripts of interest to Italy. At first Italy attempted to pool with France : this failing, she negotiated on her own account, but refused to buy what was claimed by France. In 1884 she bought the Libri collection minus the 166 manuscripts claimed by France and identified by Delisle ; and in addition she bought forty-two Dante manuscripts which formed part of the Appendix collection.

Three years later, Lord Ashburnham authorized Trübner, of Strasburg, to effect a sale of all that remained of the original Ashburnham library ; the price stated being £100,000 for the whole, or £76,000 less the manuscripts claimed by France.

Trübner’s commercial cleverness devised a plan bringing a fourth country into the transaction. Germany also had been mourning a loss ; but it was one that antedated Count Libri’s activities by more than two hundred years. This loss was that of the Manessische Liederhandschrift, so called. In the early part of the fourteenth century, Roger Manessè, a nobleman of Zürich, had brought together a number of songs of love and chivalry composed by nobles of Switzerland and Suabia. This collection survives in some 7000 strophes, interspersed with miniatures. The text, as standing for so large a body of the work of the Minnesingers, is of value incalculable to the literary history of Germany. In 1601 the manuscript was in the possession of a German noble in the Rhine valley. Then it went to Zürich. In 1607 it went to Heidelberg, to the Kurfürst Friedrich IV. In 1622 Tilly took Heidelberg, and the Archduke Maximilian sent its entire library to Pope Gregory XV. in Rome. The next appearance of the Manessische Liederhandschrift was in Paris in the latter half of the seventeenth century, in a collection belonging to the brothers Pierre and Jacques du Puy. On the 4th of July, 1657, they gave it to the king of France, who placed it in the Royal Library, afterward the Bibliothêque Nationale; and there, although of interest predominantly to Germany, it remained for more than two hundred years.

So the year 1888, which found England possessed of manuscripts passionately coveted by France, found France possessed of a manuscript ardently coveted by Germany.

Trübner, to whom these facts were known, formed a project of triple exchange ; and on February 7, 1888, the exchange was effected, Trübner ceding to the Bibliothêque Nationale the 166 manuscripts from the Ashburnham library claimed by France, and the Bibliothêeque Nationale ceding to Trübner for Germany the Manessè collection, with a bonus of 150,000 francs. To complete the transaction, the German government presumably transmitted to Lord Ashburnham, through Trübner, the remaining 450,000 francs which would represent the price of the Manessè on the basis of 600,000 francs formerly quoted for the stolen manuscripts. On February 23, 1888, there was a formal surrender of the 166 stolen manuscripts. It took place at the London Trübner’s, on Ludgate Hill. On the same day and at the same hour the Manessè was surrendered to the German ambassador at Paris, and on April 10 was formally deposited at Heidelberg, accompanied with a letter of congratulation from the Emperor Frederick to the Grand Duke of Baden.

In their negotiations with the British Museum and with Lord Ashburnham, the French representatives took a lofty moral ground with reference to the stolen manuscripts. They pointed out that every principle of the higher justice required that France should be permitted to regain that of which she had been unlawfully dispossessed. When, however, the manuscripts had been received by the National Library, and the question was of replacing them in the town libraries from which they had been stolen, the authorities of the National Library said the case was very different: it was the negligence of the town libraries that had given opportunity for the theft ; it was not for those libraries now to profit by the diligent effort of the national officials and of the administration of the National Library which had recovered them at the expense of the state. Accordingly, at the last account, the manuscripts were still at Paris.

The sales which took place in London in July and November last were sales of the remnants of the Ashburnham collection still in the hands of the younger earl. The books brought extraordinary prices, — the aggregate sum realized being nearly $250,000. A copy of the first printed edition of the Bible, with miniatures and illuminations, was sold for $20,000 ; a Caxton’s Jason (which had been sold twice before for $500) brought $10,000. Assuming the entire collection to have realized the £160,000 originally demanded, the $160,000 paid for it thirty years before may be reckoned to have yielded interest at the rate of sixteen per cent per annum, — an indication that rare manuscripts offer a profitable field for investment.

The annals of great libraries bear instances in plenty of thefts, and thefts on a large scale and of important material. Our own national library has only within the past few weeks recovered a portion of the five hundred autograph manuscripts said to have been stolen from it by an employee, and resold, through dealers, to the Lenox and other purchasers. In 1885 the library at Parma reported five thousand volumes stolen, and the secretary of the library was arrested. At St. Petersburg, upward of a thousand volumes and a thousand pounds’ worth of manuscripts, which had been missing from the Imperial Library, were found at the house of Dr. Aloys Pichler. Dr. Pichler was the director of the library : he had shown great concern at the losses, and had instituted a process of rigid search of all persons leaving the building. The zeal of the doorkeeper finally extended to the search of Dr. Pichler’s own greatcoat, on a day when the doctor’s presence seemed unusually imposing ; and there were disclosed certain rare folios which he was carrying off to add to his private collection. Not long ago the Casanatensian Library at Rome reported stolen the Mundus Novus, — four precious parchment leaves written by Amerigo Vespucci; and a little later the Italian government offered a reward of ten thousand lire for information of the whereabouts of a codex of Cicero, De Officiis, stolen from the municipal library of Perugia. In 1882 a fine manuscript of the De Consolatione of Boethius was stolen from the Vatican Library, and within a few hours was resold to another Roman library. We have a parallel to this in a theft from the Astor Library, in 1893, of an Ovid and a Zarate which were resold to the Columbia College Library for eighty dollars. The thief was a Greek named Douglas. He had spent three years in Yale; but in his case a college career did not overcome a disposition doubtless congenital.

In 1886 there were offered for sale in Paris various rare books and fifteenth-century manuscripts of wonderful beauty which had come into the hands of a bricabrac collector importing from Spain. The consignment was tapestries ; and the books and manuscripts had been used merely as “ packing.” They bore marks of mutilation ; and what had been cut out was the signet of the Columbine, bearing the inscription “ Biblioteca Columbiana,” and certain notes at the beginning and end of each book added by Fernando Columbus, son of Christopher Columbus; for they had come from the Columbian Library of Seville, which had been turned over by Fernando to the chapter of Seville Cathedral.

Nor have such depredations been confined to libraries whose administration is habitually slumbrous. In 1882 the Bibliothêque Nationale missed several diplomas of Charles the Fat, Otho, and the Emperor Louis ; charters of bishops and lords of Lorraine, Burgundy, Champagne, and Languedoc, — in all sixty-six parchments, valued at a million francs. True, these all were found, on search of the apartments of one Chevreux; but the fact of the theft shows that the vigilance of a well-conducted European library does not suffice.

When to plunder by conquest is added occasional theft on a large scale, and to this, again, constant pillage by amateurs,3 it is not strange that many of the most famous of existing manuscripts are scattered in fragments throughout Europe ;4 nor that few of them could present a clear title in the present owners, — that is, a title every link of which was lawful in the conventional sense.

But with respect to books, habit, if not convention, has tended to establish a special code of ethics, distinct from that applicable to ordinary properties. It may well be that the property right in a book is but a limited and provisional right, — a right which continues in the owner only until it appears that the volume will confer a greater benefit upon some one else. This view, which may justify— nay, which to a sensitive conscience may sorrowfully compel — the expropriation of a book, does not necessarily extend to the expropriation of the contents of a book : and we have it as a singular contrast that many persons of repute, who would hold it a theft to plagiarize other men’s ideas, hold it no more than a plagiarism to purloin their books. In using the term “ theft ” in connection with books we should therefore explain that by theft we mean no more than the dispossession of one holder in favor of another ; and set apart wholly the question of moral turpitude in the transaction.

Of all the episodes in bibliothecal history involving the possible use of such a term, that of Count Libri is entitled to preëminence for many reasons : the picturesque early career of the thief; his ingenious learning ; the eminence of his friendships ; his audacity in selecting for theft material unique and of national importance ; the skill with which he contrived to disguise its origin; the sentiment which shaped this disguise so as to transfer to his native Italy literary credits which belonged to France; the credulity of the elder Earl of Ashburnham in accepting the stolen material without adequate inquiry; the fame of the collection in his possession ; his persistent refusal to recognize any title in the dispossessed libraries against his own equities as a bona fide purchaser without notice ; the canniness of the younger earl in negotiating a sale ; the interest which the sale aroused, bringing in as it did four great governments of Europe, which made the matter one of international concern ; the magnitude of the price paid ; and the dramatic disposition of the stolen material upon the final adjustment.

Herbert Putnam.

  1. For simplicity in narrative the statement which follows assumes as proved certain allegations which may yet be subject of controversy. The career of Count Libri is even now, however, not fully explicit. As to his motives, as to his methods, and as to the extent of his depredations, there is still room for disagreement. Sympathetic agreement can hardly be expected between those who were the victims of his frauds and those who benefited by them. The evidence for the former is detailed in a report submitted in 1883 by M. Delisle, director of the Bihliothêque Nationale, to the minister of public instruction. It is this report which in the main is followed in the subjoined narrative. The evidence which it sets forth has not been answered, I believe, by authorities from the British side. It covers, however, but a portion of the material to which the allegations of fraud refer. That there was a fraud, ingenious, daring, and of sufficient proportions, seems to be clearly established.
  2. When he took a breviary of Alaric, No. 204, he put in its place a copy of the Institutes of Justinian. “ He knew,” says the chronicler, “ that the custodian was not in a case to distinguish the Institutes of Justinian from the breviary of Alaric.” So in another place he substituted an Hippocrates for an ancient manuscript of Oribase.
  3. The French, according to Mr. Lang, have a euphemistic term for this pillage by bibliophiles, with great greed and little conscience : they call it indélicatesse!
  4. M. Delisle instances: —
  5. 1. A Virgil in capital letters, of which part is at the Vatican, part at Berlin (Royal Library).
  6. 2. Homilies of St. Augustin on papyrus and parchment: part at the Bibliothêque Nationale, part at the Library of Geneva.
  7. 3. Collection of barbaric laws : part at the Bibliothêque Nationale, part at Ashburnham Place, part at the British Museum.
  8. 4. Horace of the tenth century : part at the Bibliothêque Nationale, part at the Hamburg Library.
  9. 5. Allegorical Bible of the thirteenth century : part at the Bibliothêque Nationale, part at the Bodleian, part at the British Museum.
  10. 6. A Mirror of History which belonged to Pregent de Coutivy : vol. i. at the Vatican, vol. ii. at the British Museum, vol. iv. at the Bibliothêque Nationale.