Richly illuminated collection of Arthur tales for sale

Illumination of Arthur fighting Saxons, from the Rochefoucauld Grail The Rochefoucauld Grail is a beautifully illuminated three-volume compendium of English and French Arthurian legends that was commissioned in the 14th century by the Baron de Rouchefoucauld, just a few decades after the first collections of those Camelot stories were compiled. Unlike its earlier brethren, however, this magnificent manuscript was not read until it fell apart. It’s in nearly untouched condition, and may well be the earliest surviving collection of Anglo-French Knights of the Round Table adventures.

It’s also of superb quality, royal quality even, although Guy VII, Baron de Rochefoucauld (ancestor of that Rochefoucauld who would write the maxims 300 years later) was not himself royalty. He was a representative of the Philip V of France in Flanders, however, and he came from a long line of feudal lords who were closely linked to the French monarchs. One of them even fought against the Richard the Lionhearted under King Philip II Augustus, and was taken prisoner at the battle of Gisors in 1198, the battle where Richard first used the phrase “Dieu et mon droit,” since Henry V the official motto of the British monarch, as a password to distinguish ally from enemy.

There are 107 vividly colored illustrations set against backgrounds of pure gold leaf. It was made in either Flanders or Artois around 1315-23, and is widely considered one of the greatest medieval manuscripts still in private hands. It remained with the Rochefoucauld family for 500 years until it was bought in the 19th century by collector Sir Thomas Phillips. It’s been on the market just twice since then. The current owner, Dutch businessman J.R. Ritman will be selling it at Sotheby’s London on December 7th. The estimated sale price is £2 million ($3.2 million).

“It is the most extraordinary thing, a manuscript of royal quality, on a stupendous scale – I put my back out twice carrying the three volumes,” Dr Timothy Bolton, a manuscript specialist at Sotheby’s, said.

Gawain in battle, from the Rochefoucauld Grail “It would have taken 200 cows to get the vellum, and the illuminations are in rare and costly minerals, against a background of thick gold made from coins beaten flat. Are we selling it cheap compared to its 14th-century cost? Of course we are.

“The scenes have a riotous energy, and often stretch beyond the boundaries of the picture frames, with lofty towers poking through the borders at the top, and figures tumbling out of the miniatures onto the blank page as they fall or scramble to escape their enemies.”

There is a fourth volume from this collection, currently split between the Bodleian in Oxford and the John Rylands university library in Manchester. I doubt either of them will have the wherewithal to bid for the bulk of the Grail. I’m rooting for the Morgan Library & Museum because they have a beautiful collection of illuminated medieval manuscripts, a sizeable purchase fund, are very generous with scholars and visitors, craft magnificent online exhibits, plus they just restored the landmark 1906 McKim building which hosts Mr. Morgan’s library and it looks drop dead gorgeous.

J.R. Ritman plans to use the proceeds from the sale to benefit his Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam, a private library he created in 1984 to make his personal collection of manuscripts and books from the Christian-Hermetic and Gnostic traditions in Western culture accessible to the public.