Order to auction off rare collection

Monday, December 10, 2001

From wire and staff reports

As the head of the book department for Christie's auction house, Francis Wahlgren travels the globe, studying ancient texts, first editions and historical manuscripts.

Often he finds jewels, sometimes junk. Rarely does he discover treasures -- rare Bibles, literary masterpieces, historic letters -- like those kept in an old Vincentian seminary in Perryville, Mo.

"Maybe once every 10 years do you come across a collection of this level of importance," said Wahlgren, who last summer visited this small town. "When we went to Perryville, we weren't sure what to expect. What we found was spectacular."

The texts are expected to fetch millions when they go on the block Friday in New York. Proceeds will benefit charitable efforts of the collection's owner, Midwest Province of the Congregation of the Mission, an order headed locally by the Rev. William Hartenbach.

Hartenbach, who this week will fly to New York to watch the possessions auctioned off one by one at Christie's, spent 15 years at the seminary's library, marveling at the books' beauty and message.

"Sometimes I would just stand and look at them. Well, that's all you could do. You certainly couldn't touch them," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a story Sunday. "Those rare books meant a lot to me. They told me how much the monks loved learning and how much they reverenced God.

"To me they had a lot of value, but I never put a dollar figure to it. When I found out how much they were worth, I was surprised."

The collection includes the complete Gospel of John from the first-edition Gutenberg Bible, valued at about $1 million, a first-edition King James Bible and illuminated manuscripts from the 15th century. It also features letters and works of Mark Twain as well as several American presidents.

'It's their prerogative'

For months, Hartenbach struggled deciding whether to donate the books to another institution or sell them at auction. Keeping them in Perryville was not an option. The order, which closed the seminary in 1985, recently leased the building to Southeast Missouri State University.

Southeast president Kenneth Dobbins said the university would have liked to have kept some of the order's collection.

"It's their prerogative," Dobbins said. "We were hoping we would be able to keep some in the Perryville Higher Education Center or the River Campus."

Hartenbach tried to consider the wishes of Estelle Doheny, the deceased Catholic philanthropist who donated the collection some 60 years ago. Doheny, who with her husband attended a Vincentian parish and respected the order's works, placed no conditions on the gift before her death in 1958, other than that it support the Vincentian ministry.

Some scholars urged the Vincentians, who among other things run after-school programs, to donate to a university or museum where it could inspire others. But Hartenbach decided Doheny's wishes would be best served if the collection was sold.

"The books, manuscripts and art objects are beautiful to look at," he wrote to colleagues this year. "However, locked behind glass doors or stored in a vault they do not support the contemporary mission of the Vincentian community, they do not help one person in poverty or hopelessness.

"Here we sacrifice the possessions of works of human hands to honor and care for the beauty and dignity we Vincentians most cherish."

Staff writer Heather Kronmueller contributed to this report.

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