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Sistine Chapel Book: For Really Big Coffee Tables

October 17, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ A lavishly illustrated book on the restored Sistine Chapel ceiling goes on sale this week at the suggested retail price of $1,000, making it the most expensive general trade book in publishing history.

″The Sistine Chapel″ is a coffee table book for really big coffee tables - although some owners may want to keep it in a safe.

Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, has printed 2,500 copies of the two-volume tome, which features detailed color photographs of Michelangelo’s frescoes minus centuries of grime and varnish.

″That’s a large number to try to sell because ... well, because $1,000 is a lot of money to spend on a book 3/8″ observed John Brancati, vice president of merchandising for Rizzoli, which has ordered 75 copies for its nine bookstores.

A few books have been more expensive than ″The Sistine Chapel,″ but all were printed in small numbers and sold to bookstores at a small discount and on a no-returns basis. Stores typically ordered such books for specific buyers only.

Knopf is selling ″The Sistine Chapel″ as a trade book; it gives stores a big discount - 40 percent off, or $600 - and promises to buy back unsold copies.

The publisher also is aggressively marketing the book. At the American Booksellers Association Convention in June it set up a 10-by-20-foot replica of the chapel that was papered with photos from the book.

Knopf is betting that the book will transcend the art library-and-collector market and appeal to the odd mall shopper.

″It’s a big commitment on their part,″ Brancati said. ″They’re running a risk.″

For $1,000 one can fly to Rome, stay at a hotel and look at the ceiling through binoculars. Why buy the book?

″It really is an objet de luxe,″ said the book’s editor, Susan Ralston. ″No corners were cut.″

The book is 17 inches high, 2 1/2 inches thick and weighs 30 pounds, which would seem to make it an unlikely target for shoplifters. It has 644 photos, all color, and many gatefolds, one of which opens out to 4 feet.

The binding is hand-sewn Italian linen. Illustrations are printed on 200- gram paper and the text is on 250-gram paper, compared with 150 to 175 grams for most art books.

Photographs were shot from the workers’ scaffolding. ″You can see every crack,″ Ralston said. ″You can see where (Michelangelo) made a toe a little smaller.″

Because of the cost of each book, critics will have to pass around a few review copies.

Brancati conceded that stores would not display the book on a table near the front door, but he said it should be visible: inside a locked glass case, perhaps, or on a high shelf.

″Anyone who wants to look at it will have to ask for assistance,″ he said, ″and possibly wear gloves while handling it.″

The photographs are by Takashi Okamura and the text by Frederick Hartt, an art historian, and Gianluigi Colalucci, head of the restoration team. The book already has been printed in Italian, German and French and sold in Europe.

Until now, the most expensive general trade book was Abbeville Press’s ″The Art of Florence,″ a two-volume set issued three years ago. It went for $385. More than 12,000 copies have been sold.

Abbeville has its own coffee table book on the Sistine Chapel ceiling - before the cleaning. Bound in leather and three times larger than the Knopf book, it sells for $8,500 - $500 more than when it was issued in a signed, limited edition printing of 400 in 1981.

It was decidedly not a trade book. ″It’s for the serious collector,″ said Don Rieck of Abbeville. ″The very serious collector.″