The Schøyen Collection was started around 1920 by Engineer M.O. Schøyen (1896-1962), father of Martin Schøyen, who collected some 1000 volumes of early and later editions of Norwegian and international literature, history, travel, science, as well as antiquities.
Martin Schøyen continued the collection with ancient coins, antiquities, early printed books and incunables. The first manuscript, MS 1, a fragment of French sermons c. 1300 in the binding of Manuale del Navarro, printed in Ferrara in 1592, was acquired in Firenze in 1955. More serious collecting on a larger scale started in the 1970'ies. However, the first substantial medieval MS was not bought until June 1986. This was vol. 3 of the monumental Romanesque lectern Bible from Geraardsbergen Abbey.
The main focus in the following years was MSS of the Bible, the most influential and important book ever written. This group was highlighted by the acquisition of the St. Cecilia Bible, the only Carolingian Bible in private hands; further by Codex Sinaiticus Zosimi Rescriptus, the 6th c. palimpsest Aramaic Gospels from St. Catherine's Monastery; and The Liesborn Gospels of the 10th c.
The earliest book in private ownership from the 3rd century., was acquired at Sotheby's sale in December 1988. It has the earliest known complete text of 2 books of the Bible. The earliest MSS in the Bible collection are fragments from The Dead Sea Scrolls, written in the lifetime of Christ and the Apostles, and some even earlier.
History has always been a major field of interest. In 1989 and 1991, 1130 MS volumes of the history of Europe were bought en bloc, a total of 2 1/2 tons of MSS. They came from Sir Thomas Phillipps' collection, old stock of Robinson Bros. and H.P. Kraus.
The Erlenmeyer sale at Christie's in 1988 with 78 pictographic clay tablets about 5000 years old, and a King list from 1813 B.C., sparked the interest of collecting historical primary source materials. Only two of the pictographic tablets were acquired due to fierce competition from four of the world's leading museums. But further pictographic tablets and the King list were acquired shortly after the sale from Quaritch and others. A collection of no less than 430 pictographic tablets were surprisingly offered and acquired in 1989. A further three groups of 2350 archival, historical, mathematical, and literary cuneiform tablets spanning 2600-400 B.C. were acquired in 1989 and early 1990. Four collections of 980 items of historical source materials on papyrus, including the Adler papyri, were also acquired in 1988 and 1989.
From 1988 on the collection was also extended into the field of literature. This group starts with the dawn of the literature, c. 2600 BC, and continues with the oldest MS of part of the Old Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the first substantial world literature, c. 1800 BC.
The earliest cornerstones of European literature, Homer and Hesiod, are both represented with the earliest known MSS of parts of their main works. The group ends with modern literature, including Shakespeare and Ibsen, thus spanning over 4500 years.
In 1988 the collection of palaeography started with the acquisition en bloc from Quaritch of most of Bernard Rosenthal's extensive and highly scholarly collection, especially strong on Beneventan script and other early national scripts. It totalled over 200 items. A rare treasure of 3 MSS and documents in the Anglo-Saxon language, MSS 197,600 and 1354, was later acquired. The last major acquisition in this group was made in 1994, comprising the palaeography collection of Prof. Dr. Bernhard Bischoff. Today there are 494 items of book scripts and 1693 items of documentary scripts in the collection.
In addition to the 4 main collections, The Bible, History, Literature, and Palaeography, there are 19 special collections, and further 18 smaller collections spanning from Architecture to Slavery and Wine. There is an overview at Special Collections which span 5. Patristic Literature to 22. Buddhism.
The acquisition of large private collections of substantial quality and importance has continued. Many of these were collected in the 1920'ies and 1930'ies, when the supply of highly important materials was by far greater than today. Such collections, from 50 to over 2000 manuscript items, are the main reason for the combination of very important texts in unusually large numbers and of early date in The Schøyen Collection. This could not have been achieved by acquiring manuscripts one by one in the 1980'ies and 1990'ies. The credit goes to these great collectors. The achievement to assemble these collections and the other manuscripts together in one collection is Soli Deo Gloria.
Acquisition of non-western manuscripts, particularly from the Near and Far East, was in practical terms halted by the end of 2001. There are still lacunae in the holdings of Western manuscripts, and attempts to fill these continue. A few MSS have from time to time been sold in order to pay for insurance, the unique Fortune/Capital tax in Norway, running costs of the collection, and for new acquisitions of even more important MSS. Our previous practice of removing these MSS from the website has been reviewed. For the benefit of scholars who have been used to finding these MSS on the website, those which have been it the Collection for more than 20 years are now left on the website, but with the addition under Provenance: Deaccessioned (month/year). Where the new home of these MSS is known, it will be communicated to scholars upon request.
The uniqueness and importance of the materials in The Schøyen Collection go far beyond the scope of a private collection, or even a national public collection. These MSS are the world's heritage, the memory of the world. They are felt not really to belong to The Schøyen Collection and its owner, who is the privileged keeper, neither do they belong to a particular nation, people, religion, culture, but to mankind, being the property of the entire world. In the future The Schøyen Collection will have to be placed in a public context that can fulfil these visions. The proceeds will go to The Schøyen Human Rights Foundation to give emergency aid and fight poverty in emerging nations, and to promote Freedom of Speech and Human Rights worldwide.