The Noble Leaf: An Exhibit of Antique Map Leaves from the McKillop Library Special Collections

The Noble Leaf: An Exhibit of Antique Map Leaves from the McKillop Library Special Collections
by Julie Swierczek, Interim University Archivist and Special Collections Cataloger

A ‘leaf’, in book terminology, is what most people commonly think of as a ‘page’.   However, a page, properly speaking, only refers to one side of a leaf.  A leaf has a page on the front and a page on the back. 

What is a ‘noble leaf’?
In 1911, bookseller Gabriel Wells purchased an imperfect copy of a Gutenberg Bible; 50 leaves were missing and some of the remaining leaves had the illuminations cut out. Wells decided to separate the volume into individual leaves and larger fragments, selling them in morocco folders along with a bibliographical essay by prominent book collector A. Edward Norton. The title was A Noble Fragment, being a leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, 1450-1455, with a bibliographical essay by A. Edward Norton (New York: Gabriel Wells, 1921).  Since then, an individual leaf of a rare book is sometimes known as a ‘noble leaf’.

The value of a noble leaf
When Wells sold the leaves in 1921, the price was $150 each, or $100 for a damaged leaf. That is about $1,923 and $1,282 in 2012 currency.  However, these leaves now sell for $20,000 to $100,000, depending upon their condition and the desirability of the leaf.  A leaf with a chapter title typically costs more than a leaf that only shows text.  Thus, as with other collectibles, the market value is determined by what buyers will pay.

The controversy about noble leaves
Many booksellers, collectors, and rare books librarians disapprove of the idea of breaking up rare books and selling individual leaves on ethical grounds.  Wells was not the first person to break up a book and sell individual leaves in leaf books; the tradition dates to at least 1865. In the eighth edition of ABC for Book Collectors (2004), Nicholas Barker states that the breaking up of books “is not to be condoned, even in a good cause”.  However, since collectors still want to possess leaves from books that they cannot otherwise afford, it will likely be the market, not ethics, that determines whether noble leaves are still made and sold.

The exhibit of noble leaves- in the exhibit case outside the Munroe Special Collections room, near the Circulation Desk- includes leaves from:

Bowen, Emanuel, and John Owen. Britannia depicta, or, Ogilby improv’d . London: 1720.  The maps are reduced and republished from Ogilby, John, Britannia, 1675.

Botero, Giovanni. Irlandia. Brescia, 1599.

Clüver, Philipp. Introductionis in Universam Geographiam. Amsterdam, 1682.

Kitchin, Thomas. The Atlas to Guthrie’s System of Geography. London, 1785.

Porcacchi, Tommaso. L’isole più famose del mondo descritte. Engraved by Girolamo Porro. Venice, 1576.

Tolomei, Claudio. Geographia. Engraved by Girolamo Ruscelli. Venice, 1574.