December 2013 | Mitch Fraas

Collection of Bibles on the Move

A collection of hundreds of printed and manuscript bibles dating from the 14th-19th centuries is in the process of changing hands. The collection, formed by noted bookseller John Gilson Howell (1874-1956) over the course of his life, had been owned by the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Ca. since 1955. Pacific has decided to sell the Howell bible collection through the Philadelphia Rare Book and Manuscript Co. (PRBM) and John Windle of San Francisco and most of the books are now resident here in Philadelphia.The collection consists primarily of printed bibles including a number of highly desirable editions. Among these are six incunabula including a 1480 Koberger bible as well as an array of other early printings such as the 1536 "mole" edition of the Tyndale New Testament, the 1550 Estienne Greek New Testament (USTC 150710), as well as the 1540 "Great Bible", 1568 "Bishop's Bible", and of course the 1611 King James Bible.

1550 Estienne Greek New Testament from the Howell Collection (PRBM)

Howell's shop, later run by his son Warren, was one of the most important 20th century American book dealer's but the collection seems to have been almost entirely a labor of love or obsession on the part of the elder Howell. In fact, Jennifer Larson notes in her discussion of the Howell business that "a disproportionate share of the bookshop's profits went into his [John's] personal collection of rare and important editions of the Bible." 1 Warren Howell seemed to share in this opinion and recalled in an interview that his father began the collection in 1918, tying up a great deal of capital in the process. By the 1940s and 50s when the younger Howell took the reigns of the business he tried hard to find a local institutional buyer for the collection. Eventually the Howells reached an agreement with Pacific for a gift-purchase of the collection which was concluded in 1955. Speaking a decade after the sale however, Warren noted that given the post-war market, if he had retained the collection "it would have been a gold mine."

For now information about the collection is still available through the Pacific website as well as in a promotional pamphlet produced in the 1940s to aid in its original sale. However, as far as I can tell, no formal catalog of the Howell Bible Collection was ever published, though a typescript catalog of Howell's purchases is available in the Graduate Theological Union library. Further details may be available in the Howell business and family archives held at Stanford University.

The bibles in the Howell collection have followed a familiar cycle: from the market to a collector/bookseller like John Howell, then to an institutional home, like at Pacific, and now back again into the market to be reshaped. Dispersing institutional collections is always a controversial and fraught process but in a way the sale of the Howell collection helps highlight for me the constant flux of the rare books ecosystem, and the role of material and economic forces in the creation and recreation of the things we call "collections."

[**Update 10 Dec. 2013: PBA just announced an upcoming sale (Dec. 19) of Fine Books With Early Works From The Pacific School of Religion**]

[1] Jennifer Larson, "Warren Howell" in American Book Collectors and Bibliographers, First Series. Ed. Joseph Rosenblum. [Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 140], (Detroit: Gale Research, 1994), p.91. For more on the Howell business see the oral history conducted with Warren Howell in 1966 and digitized by UC-Berkeley: Two San Francisco bookmen : oral history transcript and related material, 1966-1967