Collecting guide: incunabula

The earliest printed books are now over 500 years old. International Head of Books and Manuscripts Margaret Ford shares what to know and look for in this fascinating, and surprisingly accessible, collecting category


What does the word ‘incunabula’ mean?

‘Incunabula’, Latin for ‘swaddling clothes’, denotes something in its infancy. Since the 18th century, the term has applied to the earliest printed books, and is now used to refer to those printed between Johann Gutenberg's invention of printing at Mainz, circa 1450, through to 1501. ‘Incunabula’ is the plural; the singular is ’incunabulum’. It’s often anglicised to incunable or incunables.

Why were incunabula so revolutionary?

The invention of printing is one of the greatest achievements of all time. ‘Gutenberg’s apparently independent invention and its immediate spread across Europe altered the course of history,’ explains Margaret Ford, International Head of Department, Books and Manuscripts.

‘By inventing printing with moveable types cast in metal, he enabled texts to be reproduced and disseminated in greater numbers than could ever be possible by manually copying manuscripts.’

Presses for printing (woodcuts) did exist before the printing press was invented and printing with moveable metal types was already practiced in Asia to a limited extent — as seen in the example of a pre-Gutenberg Korean printing, above. ‘Examples of pre-Gutenberg printing with moveable types would be fascinating additions to a collection of incunabula,’ says Ford.

How rare are incunabula?

Once printing was developed at Mainz, it spread quickly. About 30,000 different editions survive – although many more have not. While each edition was printed in multiple copies, the majority of incunabula survive in a single copy only. And even for incunabula that may be well represented in institutions, an edition may be rare on the market.

‘For instance, the Songe du Vergier, an anonymous medieval dream-dialogue in French, was printed in two editions in the 15th century, ‘ explains Ford. ‘While both editions are known in over 30 copies, only two complete copies of each have been offered at auction in over 70 years.’

What would a collection of incunabula encompass?

Because incunabula are defined merely by having been printed in the 15th century, ‘the ways of collecting them are infinite.’

Collections may chart the development and spread of printing, but they may equally focus on specific countries, cities or individual printers, or physical features of individual copies such as provenance, annotations and decoration.

‘All themes and subjects are covered in their texts, so may be collected by author, subject matter, language, movements or editions,’ says Ford. ‘ The possibilities are endless.’

How might incunabula feature in other collections?

A frequent assumption is that incunabula are all theological, but in fact they cover a range of subjects, from food and drink to science; literature to erotica; mathematics to history; current affairs to travel; and more. 

‘Incunabula even contain the antecedents of subjects that we consider very modern, such as computing,’ says Ford. ‘Pacioli’s Summa de arithmetica, for example, contains the antecedents of symbolic algebra, leading in due course to coding and the modern computer.’

Are first editions important in collecting incunabula?

The first, first editions are by definition incunabula. ‘It is awe-inspiring to contemplate a first edition: the very first  time a text is printed and disseminated to a wider audience, be it the Bible or the works of Plato.’

Collecting cachet is also attached to first editions. A number of works from classical antiquity were first printed in Latin translation as they had circulated in the Middle Ages, and with the Renaissance came rediscoveries of those works in their original Greek, resulting in the first edition in Greek, editio princeps.

For instance, the works of Plato were first printed in Latin in Florence in 1484 under the patronage of Cosimo de Medici; their first edition in Greek did not appear in print until 1513. ‘A collection devoted to first editions of classical texts might well include both Latin and Greek first editions.’

How does one start collecting incunabula?

Incunabula are offered by rare book dealers and at Christie’s, in four to six auctions a year, as well as auctions of special collections devoted to early printing, such as the Elaine and Alexandre Rosenberg Collection.

‘Prices range from about £1,000 to the millions — depending on many factors — but one could build a collection of incunabula and spend little more than £1,000–3,000 per book,’ says Ford.

What factors affect price?

In addition to factors affecting price for all books (rarity, first edition, completeness, condition, provenance), printing history can play a special role in the price of incunabula. ‘The first book printed in a particular country or city or by a famous printer can add value, or if it is one of only a few books printed by a particular press,’ explains Ford.

Special features, such as decoration or illumination, a contemporary binding, provenance or marks of early ownership, add value and distinguish one copy from another. Even though an incunabulum may be one of an edition, these special features make each copy unique.

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Bartholomaeus Platina (1421-1481). Vitae pontificum. [Venice:] Johannes de Colonia and Johannes Manthen, 11 June 1479. Sold for $18,750 on 23 April 2021 at Christie’s in New York

The Rosenberg copy of Vitae pontificum, from the library of Willibald Pirckheimer, features his bookplate by Albrecht Dürer

Platina’s Lives of the Popes, above, from the Rosenberg collection, was printed in 1479 and is already an important book as the first edition. ‘It was also written by a man who had first-hand knowledge of the papacy, having held several roles, including Vatican librarian — a nice bibliophile touch,’ says Ford.

Add to that, the contemporary ownership of German Renaissance humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, with his bookplate designed by Albrecht Dürer (pictured, above), and an original Italian binding, and you have a highly desirable incunable. The Rosenberg copy also contains a second miniature artwork, a bookplate designed by Pablo Picasso for Alexandre Rosenberg.

Where can one seek advice on collecting incunabula?

Attending auction pre-sale views and book fairs offers an opportunity both to see the books and speak to specialists. Webinars on aspects of incunabula, early printing and collecting are also available online and through societies that focus on books, such as The Bibliographical Society.

Are all incunabula in Latin?

At the time of their publication in the second half of the 15th century, Latin was the lingua franca of Europe, its trans-nationalism ensuring markets for Latin-printed books across Europe.

Books in the vernacular were also printed for a more local audience. In fact, the auction record for an incunable is held by a first edition copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the first book printed in England, by William Caxton circa 1476, which sold for £4,600,000 on 8 July 1998 at Christie’s.

Some works were even printed in both Latin and the vernacular to broaden their appeal. For instance, the 15th-century bestseller, the Nuremberg Chronicle  was printed simultaneously in a Latin and a German edition, with the same extensive series of woodcuts on which Dürer worked as an apprentice. 

The German edition is somewhat rarer, as its contemporary buying audience was more limited. Christie’s also holds the world auction record for the title, realising £541,250 for a first edition of Das Buch der Chroniken und Geschichten mit figuren und pildnussen on 7 July 2010.

Why are incunabula a separate category?

As the earliest printed products, incunabula have long benefitted from specialised scholarly attention. Their bibliographical treatment is extensive in national and international resources.

‘The printed book as we know it was still being standardised in those early years, says Ford. ‘It was not until the 16th century that features we now expect, such as a title page, publication information and pagination, became routine.’

Printers were still learning and experimenting with the new technology, and many incunabula bear tantalising physical clues to the process. ‘These visible traces transport one back over 500 years, to inside the printer’s shop,’ says Ford. ‘Understanding the archaeology of the book as a historical object and artwork, in addition to its contribution to intellectual history, is what makes incunabula especially fascinating.’

How can I tell what the book is?

Many incunabula do not have title pages, but the title itself is often stated at the beginning, in what’s known as an ‘incipit’ – the opening lines of a text. Publication information is usually found in a colophon at the end, sometimes together with a printer’s mark, a brand identifying the printer.


Expositio super toto psalterio. Mainz: Peter Schoeffer, 1478. Sold for $15,000 on 23 April 2021 at Christie’s in New York

How do you care for such old books?

Early printed books are quite robust. The materials with which they were printed and bound were of high quality and they don’t require highly specialised care as long as they are not subject to extreme temperature fluctuations, damp or insects. One shouldn’t be afraid of handling incunabula.

What top tip would you give for a budding collector of incunabula?

‘Don’t let your awe of their antiquity make you afraid of handling them,’ advises Ford. ‘They tend to be robust objects, and there is so much pleasure to be had from turning their pages and letting the secrets of their history reveal themselves.’

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