The 'Chronicle of Dalimil': Sold to the Czech Republic for nine million crowns

Photo: CTK

In a whirl of smoke and mirrors, the Czech Republic acquired its most valuable manuscript for generations on Thursday. A mystery bidder, who turned out to be working for the Czech National Library, paid nine million crowns (around four hundred thousand US dollars) to buy a unique medieval manuscript - the Chronicle of Dalimil - that relates the history of Bohemia. Rosie Johnston has been following the story, and asked Czech Radio's Jan Krelina in Paris about the sale

The Chronicle of Dalimil, photo: CTK
"The sale took place in the biggest public sale house in Paris - Drouot. The sale of this fragment of the chronicle of Dalimil took place in room number sixteen. I thought there was room for about twenty people, but actually there were nearer a hundred people there. The interest was enormous. But only five people wanted to buy the Czech chronicle. The auction only took several seconds, it was so quick that nobody knew what was happening. No one put their hands up like you would see in an English auction, they just moved their faces. It was very smooth"

The centerpiece of Thursday's rare book sale in Paris was a crumbly Latin translation of the Czech 'Chronicle of Dalimil', dating from around 1340. It is thought to have been commissioned by Czech King John of Luxembourg or his son, Charles the Fourth. In more recent years, the manuscript's history has been as colourful as each one of it 24 richly illustrated pages, as Christian Galantaris, who was in charge of the sale, explains:

Zdenek Uhlir and Vlastimil Jezek, photo: CTK
"The manuscript belonged to a Parisian family for over a hundred and fifty years, but they thought nothing of it. It lived in a drawer, they thought it wasn't worth anything until they brought it to us and we told them that it might actually be quite valuable. In my opinion, this manuscript left Bohemia very early on. In the sixteenth century it was already somewhere else - and it was already broken up into segments. There is an inscription which it is impossible to read, but which shows that in the sixteenth century, the manuscript was already in fragments."

The chronicle of Dalimil tells the stories of King Borivoj the First, his grandson - Good King Wenceslas - and a plethora of other medieval royals aside. Czechs still learn these tales at school today. When this Latin translation of the 'Chronicle of Dalimil' first surfaced in Paris, the Czech government tried to halt its sale. They failed, and had to bid for the manuscript like everyone else. In the weeks running up to the sale, the papers were filled with talk of the ten million crowns that the Czech government had allocated in order to purchase the manuscript. But as Zdenek Uhlir from the national library tells me, this was all a ruse:

The Chronicle of Dalimil, photo: CTK
"It was only tactics when our ministers spoke of a limit of ten million crowns, but we could have bid more."

And this wasn't the only measure taken to dupe punters. The National Library also brought in a mystery blonde to do their bidding for them as Jan Krelina explains:

"Nobody knew who this lady was, she bid the final price of three hundred thousand euros. After several seconds of real drama, the director of the Czech National Library, Vlastimil Jezek told us that we had got it. And she was the secret bidder that nobody knew."

So, the manuscript is now one of the most valuable treasures in the national library's collection. We can expect a special exhibition of 'the Chronicle of Dalimil' in the next couple of months. But for the meantime, hearty congratulations must go out to the Czech National Library, for their cloak and dagger accomplishments.