Billed as “the most important early printed book to be offered this century”, a deluxe vellum copy of the ‘Opera’ of Virgil is being offered at Christie’s on June 12.

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Detail of a page from the 1470 Virgil to be sold by Christie’s, showing an example of the four-line initials in blue that open each work and book.

Recently discovered, it is a very rare vellum copy of an edition of the works of the great Latin poet - the Buccolica, Georgica and Aeneid - printed in 1470 in Venice by Vindelinus de Spira, or Wendelin of Speier, one of the German printers who spread the new art across Europe, and was produced soon after he set up the first press in that city.

De Spira's Virgil had been preceded by a 1469 edition from the Roman press of two migrant German printers, Konrad Sweynheim and Arnold Pannartz, but this Venetian edition, based on a different manuscript source, is recognised by scholars as textually superior and more faithful to the 1st century BC originals.

Market Rarity

No copy of the Roman edition has come to the market in over a century, with the eight recorded examples all now in institutional collections. This Venetian second edition is just as rare. The last copy to pass through the salerooms was in 1920 - and that one lacked 38 leaves.

Virgil was one of the most widely read authors during the medieval period and one of the most frequently printed authors in the 15th century. As many as 100 incunable (pre-1500) editions are recorded, but this is effectively the earliest obtainable printed edition of the works.

The complete copy to be offered at King Street is one of nine recorded examples on vellum, at least three of which are imperfect. Bound in the 18th century in cats-paw sheep - named for the distinctive dark pattern of the prepared leather - it has been valued at £500,000-800,000.