A Lucky Find or an Educated Guess?
Thanks to a course he took at Colby, Will Sideri ’20 helped identify a page from a valuable 13th-century manuscript at a Waterville estate sale
Will Sideri ’20 didn’t have ancient manuscripts on his mind on the Saturday in early September when he saw balloons advertising an estate sale in his Waterville neighborhood.
“I’ve always, actually, really liked yard sales more than anything. I’ll generally look for some cool books, games, anything like that, and just see what’s going on,” Sideri, 24, an admissions counselor at Colby, said. “In the words of my mom, like all Sideris, I’m very nosy. I just like to see what’s going on. It’s a family trait.”
That day, his nosiness, and his Colby education, paid off in spades.
As he strolled through the home that had belonged to a retired Colby administrator, admiring the furniture and keeping an eye out for a KitchenAid mixer, he spotted a framed piece of art that seemed intriguing.
A yellow sticker listed the price, $75, the date, 1285 A.D., and the information that it was an illuminated manuscript on vellum
. At first, Sideri doubted that it was real, figuring that a centuries-old manuscript would be much more yellowed, worn, and crumbling.
But in fact, the page turned out to be an actual relic of the medieval world: a leaf from the Beauvais Missal, a liturgical book that was written in or near Beauvais, France, in the late 13th century.
As a senior English major, Sideri had taken two courses with Associate Professor of English Megan Cook, Global Middle Ages and Digital Manuscript Studies. He had studied medieval manuscripts and even handled another page of the Beauvais Missal that Colby’s Special Collections & Archives acquired in 2016. Because of that, he recognized the potential value and rarity of the manuscript page and immediately contacted Cook, who was able that same day to confirm it was part of the Beauvais Missal.
“Will’s immediate recognition of this leaf in the estate sale is really a testament to our teaching program because by being so hands-on and having such a broad suite of materials for students to explore, it creates a memorable experience that they carry on with them,” Pat Burdick, assistant director of special collections, said. “And this is not an isolated incident. I mean, it doesn’t always play out like a $75 estate sale thing, but students we’ve kept in touch with say that their time here as either a student researcher or student assistant really stays with them because of the fabulous materials we have.”
The 700-year-old Beauvais Missal is best known for what happened to it in the mid-20th century, when American industrialist and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst sold it to rare book dealer Philip Duschnes of New York, who then sold it to Otto Ege of Ohio. Both Duschnes and Ege sliced up the 309-page manuscript, then sold the dismembered leaves to collectors around the world. They were biblioclasts—those who mutilate or destroy books—and Ege, at least, was proud of it.
“Surely to allow a thousand people ‘to have and to hold’ an original manuscript leaf, and to get the thrill and understanding that comes only from actual and frequent contact with these art heritages, is justification enough for the scattering of fragments,” Ege wrote in his 1938 essay, “I Am A Biblioclast.”“Few, indeed, can hope to own a complete manuscript book; hundreds, however, may own a leaf.”
The missal’s fate is controversial, with scholars and historians often horrified at the casual dismemberment of such an old, and beautiful, manuscript. But what happened also has made the most recent chapter of the book’s history remarkable, Cook said.
“I wish they hadn’t taken it apart. But there’s a whole history of people who have used this book —who have perhaps misused this book—who have been drawn to this book written by a monk in the late 1200s,” she said. “You’re part of a historical chain of people who have held that book, and for me, I find that continuity almost as moving as the age of the object itself.”
Part of that chain was Lucia Winifred Whittelsey ’73, who died this summer after a long illness. She and her sister, Holly Whiteside, grew up with the manuscript page on the wall of their family’s Tudor home in Bryn Mawr, Pa. Whiteside thought it might have been a wedding gift to her parents.
“We honored historic things,” she said.
Whittelsey worked for 26 years at Colby, ultimately serving as director of financial aid. She was a fierce advocate of people going to college, and the opportunities they could find there, her sister said.
When she died, her sister helped to organize the estate sale.
“I believe in things being repurposed. Lucia did, too,” Whiteside said. “Seeing these pieces from our old house wind up in other peoples’ hands, and them being delighted, was a very happy part of the whole experience.”
That’s how it was for Sideri, though when he first saw the manuscript page he thought that $75 was a lot to spend on a whim. So he pulled out his phone and sent some photos to Cook, to see what she thought.
“When Will sent me those images, my first thought was, ‘This looks familiar, this looks like a Beauvais Missal leaf,’” the professor said. “My second thought was, ‘This can’t be a Beauvais Missal leaf. What are the odds?’”
Excitedly, she forwarded the photos to medieval manuscript expert Lisa Fagin Davis, a professor at the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science, for verification.
In the meantime, Sideri ran home to get a check so he could buy the manuscript. Whiteside told him that she had been hoping that someone who knew what it was would find it and love it.
“He was absolutely delightful,” Whiteside said. “That it had fallen into his hands was just too perfect. He was meant to be there and find that.”
Later that afternoon, Davis, the executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, verified that the leaf was real. It was the “Common of One Virgin” liturgy, a generic Mass chant for a virgin saint.
Davis is endeavoring to digitally reconstruct the Beauvais Missal, a laborious task, and has tracked down 114 pages so far. She was thrilled to add Sideri’s find to the collection, which also includes pages found at Harvard University and at the Boston Public Library. According to Davis, the value of Sideri’s leaf is between $5,000 and $10,000.
“[Will Sideri] got the deal of the century!” she wrote on Twitter about the discovery. “Congratulations!”
The story of the estate sale discovery seized the imaginations of those who heard about it through local and international media, including the Maine Monitor, NPR, ArtNet, and the Smithsonian. The wave of publicity has been good for research on the missal, Cook said.
“Since the story broke [in late September], two additional leaves have come to light thanks to people who read the story and got in touch with me or Lisa to ask if what they had might also be a part of the missal,” she said.
And even though Whiteside learned she sold the manuscript for a bargain price, she has no hard feelings. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“The estate sale wasn’t about monetary value. It was about the true meaning of value,” she said. “The sale was about finding new homes for all of Lucia’s things.”
For his part, Sideri has no plans to sell the leaf. Instead, he intends to reframe it, insure it, and keep it as a prize possession with a really great backstory.
“It’s a new discovery in the medieval field. It’s so awesome,” he said. “This is a lucky find—I’m never going to expect anything that cool again.”
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