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Kerry Stokes to loan $15.5 million Rothschild Prayerbook to National Library

It may have been out of the public gaze for its entire 500-year history, but for the famous bidder who bought the world's most expensive manuscript, there was never any question of where it would go first.  

It was not long after Kerry Stokes had unpacked his latest acquisition – the exquisite and mysterious Rothschild Prayerbook – that his son, Ryan, suggested it be placed on display at the National Library in Canberra.

National Library Chairman Ryan Stokes and director-general Anne-Marie Schwirtlich with items from the National Library's ...
National Library Chairman Ryan Stokes and director-general Anne-Marie Schwirtlich with items from the National Library's collection that will be displayed with the Rothschild Prayerbook.  Photo: Matt Bedford

And the billionaire Australian businessman was quick to agree.

The book will go on public display in the library's Treasures Gallery from May 22, and visitors will be able to see it for free, alongside several other examples of medieval manuscripts from the library's collection, until August 9.

"Hours of the Holy Spirit" from the Prayerbook.
"Hours of the Holy Spirit" from the Prayerbook. 

The Rothschild Prayerbook, considered one of the most important books in existence, was made in the Belgian city of Bruges in the early 1500s, probably for a noble family.

It is made from animal skin and lined with gold, and contains 67 full-page miniature paintings, each considered a masterpiece in its own right.

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Its whereabouts for the 350 years before it emerged in Austria as the greatest treasure in the extensive private collection of the Rothschild family are unknown.

The book was among the many treasures looted by Nazis when Germany invaded Austria. It was hidden in an Austrian salt mine until it was returned to the National Library in Vienna in 1942.

The painting "St Francis receives the stigmata" in the Rothschild Prayerbook.
The painting "St Francis receives the stigmata" in the Rothschild Prayerbook. 

It was eventually returned to the Rothschilds in the late 1990s after a series of court battles, and appeared on the market last year to massive worldwide interest.

Mr Stokes bought the Prayerbook for his own private collection, which is viewed by invitation only, but he had always maintained it should spend some time on public display.

"Virgin and Child on a crescent
moon" from the Rothschild Prayerbook.
"Virgin and Child on a crescent moon" from the Rothschild Prayerbook. Photo: Supplied

Announcing its impending arrival on Friday, Ryan Stokes, who is the library's chairman, said the book had had an unforgettable effect on his father, even for someone used to acquiring special objects.

He said he was present last year to see the book unpacked.

"I remember having seen facsimile copies of it, but it is very different in real life," he said.

"There's a lot of very fine gold etching that comes alive as you get a different perspective of each painting, and they are masterpieces."

He said it was important for Australians to have the chance to see the book and experience its beauty up close.

"To be able to provide that accessibility to it is something we're very excited about, and to have that broader appreciation for what this book represents I think is something that we're really looking forward to," he said.

The library's head of preservation, Denyl Cloughley, said to work with a piece like the Prayerbook was something of a dream.

"Being in Australia, I don't think you'll ever think you'll have access to something like that … You think that you have to go to Europe or America … so to be able to have it here is really quite extraordinary," she said.

"With the illuminated manuscripts, I think it's the amount of artistry that's required and the fact that after hundreds of years they can look pristine. And some of them have that history; you need to see too that it's had a life in that time."