The German 16th century vexierbuch, priced $12,500 from Phillip J Pirages.

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These ‘puzzle’ or ‘tease’ books open multiple ways – in this case six – and usually contain religious texts. This volume, comprises Catholic texts printed in Dillingen, Bavaria – though many other examples (like much of Germany at the time) espoused the Protestant faith.

Bound here are a lavishly illustrated prayer book, a book dedicated to prayers for the sick and suffering plus meditations on the suffering of Christ and the merits of spiritual rather than physical ecstasies. It contains 96 woodcuts throughout, 88 of which are in the first work.

Although plenty of spiritual enrichment could clearly be gained from the contents, vexierbuch may also have served a more practical purpose. In a catalogue entry for a similar example at Wormsley Library, Robert Harding suggests these may have been passed around for “quiet amusement during long sermons”.


Another view of the German 16th century vexierbuch, priced $12,500 from Phillip J Pirages.

They are rare on the market. The spineless bindings were weak and many probably fell apart quickly. Since 1975 it is thought that only two have come to auction, one of which, sold in 2006, was also on Dillingen imprints.

This example, rebound in the 19th century with calf embossed covers resembling an Oriental rug, is offered by books and medieval manuscripts dealership Phillip J Pirages of Oregon for $12,500.