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Rothschild Prayerbook expected to sell for as much as $18 million at auction

The Rothschild Prayerbook, which once set a record for the most expensive illuminated manuscript sold at auction, will again be offered for sale by Christie’s. This time the Book of Hours is expected to sell for between $12 million and $18 million later this month.

Rothschild prayerbook - photo by E2v/Wikicommons

The prayerbook was made for a member of the imperial court in the Netherlands in the early sixteenth-century, and gained its name when it joined the collections of the Rothschild family in the 19th century. Its 150 pages contains lavish and extensive illustrations created by a group of the most renowned illuminators of their day, including Gerard Horenbout, Simon Bening and the Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian I probably Alexander Bening.

Nicholas Hall, an expert in Old Masters and 19th-century art for Christie’s, explains, “Every aspect of this Book of Hours – from the quality of the parchment to the wealth and refinement of the decoration – marks the Rothschild Prayerbook as one of the most prestigious and exquisite examples of Flemish manuscript illumination. Christie’s is honored to be entrusted with its sale for the second time in a generation. We are excited to include it as the centerpiece of a global tour of highlights from our Old Masters Week, giving collectors around the world an opportunity to see this beautifully rendered and remarkably well-preserved work.”

This Book of Hours is one of a group of spectacular manuscrits-de-luxe that was produced around 1490 to 1520 for an international clientele and members of the Habsburg court in the Netherlands. These vast undertakings were achieved by the efficient coordination of labor and collaboration of several artists and their workshops. It is closely related to a Book of Hours in the British Library, the Spinola Hours (now at the J. Paul Getty Museum) and the Grimani Breviary (now in Venice, at the Bibl. Marciana). With the Rothschild Prayerbook, these are the most impressive productions of the illuminator Gerard Horenbout, who became court painter to Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, in 1515, before relocating to England to work for King Henry VIII. As well as painting and illuminating, he designed tapestries and stained glass.

The illuminated openings, where a miniature faces a complementary full-page border, are some of Horenbout’s most exceptional creations. These scenes are thoughtfully devised and precisely observed, and they provide a fascinating record of liturgical practices of the day and they are some of the finest and most remarkable of all Flemish miniatures. The description of the fabrics of the vestments, the integration of figures in architectural space, and the extensive and atmospheric recession are evoked with a detailed delicacy and a bravura naturalism.

One of the beguiling features of the Prayerbook is the wide variety in the decorative borders. Many of them, as well as further miniatures, recognizably belong to the repertoire of the illuminator long-known as the Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximillian, who is now generally accepted as being Alexander Bening, friend of Hugo van der Goes and Joos van Ghent. Alexander’s son also contributed miniatures to the Prayerbook, including the Vision of St Bernard. The delicacy and elegance of this scene and the subtlety of handling in the modeling of the flesh and the description of fabric and form demonstrate why Simon went on to become the most celebrated illuminator of his day.

In 1999, when the art collection of the Rothschild family was sold at auction, the Rothschild Prayerbook was bought for $13,378,558, setting a world record for the most expensive illuminated manuscript sold at auction.

Opening from the Rothschild Prayerbook.

It is scheduled for a world exhibition tour to Moscow, Hong Kong and London before it is offered for sale at Christie’s Rockefeller Center saleroom in New York City on January 29, 2014. It will be part of a sale of European artwork that dates from 1300 to 1600. Click here to visit the Christie’s website.

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