Who hasn’t imagined stumbling across a bargain item at a yard sale and realizing that what you are looking at is a rare medieval antique?
By Walter S. Brackett III
This is the dream that drives bargain hunters to visit flea markets and estate sales every weekend and has given PBS’ Antiques Roadshow an audience for over a quarter century. And this is the dream that came true for Will Sideris, 24, on September 3, 2022.
Sideris decided on a whim to visit a Maine estate sale, hoping to find a cheap mixer. What he found was much more interesting.
Searching through the kitchen at the estate, he came across a framed manuscript on a wall with a handwritten label that read, “1285 A.D. Illuminated manuscript on vellum. $75.” The manuscript contained an elaborate script in Latin with musical notations and gold flourishes. Instantly, he realized that he was likely looking at an actual medieval document that appeared similar to one he had studied when he took a class in medieval manuscripts at Colby College.
He rushed home to collect the funds to purchase the page, texting a photo to his former professor Megan Cook. She, in turn, passed the photo on to Lisa Fagin Davis, a Simmons University professor and the Executive Director of the Medieval Academy of America.
Davis was able to confirm that the manuscript was indeed authentic. It was a page taken from the Beauvais Missal, which had been used by priests performing mass at Beauvais Cathedral in France in the late 13th century.
In the 1920s, the Missal made its way to the US, one of many unique antiques collected by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who eventually amassed a collection worth over $20 million. But in the late 1930s, as Hearst faced bankruptcy, he began selling off his collection to raise cash. The Beauvais Missal was ultimately sold to New York rare book dealer in 1942.
In order to maximize profits from the purchase, the book dealer unbound the 309-page manuscript and sold the individual pages off to collectors all over the country, greatly reducing the academic and historical value of the manuscript.
To the consternation of academics, thousands of rare manuscripts have been destroyed in this way.
Scholars had been able to track down only 113 of the original 309 pages in the Beauvais Missal, until Sideris’ discovery added one more.
The page he purchased for $75 was estimated by Davis to be worth as much as $10,000 but Sideris has no intention to sell the document. Rather, he plans to leave it with his parents to watch over until he has a home of his own, and then he will hang it on the wall to remember the once-in-a-lifetime experience of finding a valuable French medieval manuscript at a Maine estate sale.
“I now have something very vintage," Sideris said. "Like 1285 vintage.”
Since then, seven additional leaves have come to light, in South Carolina, Delaware, Kansas, Connecticut, Tennessee, California, and Ohio, says Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America.