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Books Bound in Human Skin: An Ethical Quandary at the Library

The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair is the place to inspect some of the most exquisite rare books on the market. But at this year’s event in early April, some browsers may have been unprepared for a small, grayish item on view: a book bound in human skin.

The book, which measures about 3 by 5 inches, came with a price tag of $45,000 — and a colorful back story. According to a statement by its owner, the binding was commissioned in 1682 by an Italian doctor and anatomist identified as Jacopo X, and has been kept by his descendants ever since.

Family lore held that during a dissection, Jacopo recognized the woman on the slab as an actress he had seen in Corneille’s comedy “Le Baron d’Albikrac.” He knew that unclaimed bodies sold to medical schools for dissection were rarely, if ever, given a proper burial. So he removed a piece of skin, and used it to bind a copy of the play.

“There was a sense that this was a tribute,” Ian Kahn, a dealer, explained to onlookers gathered at the counter of his booth before pulling out the book to offer a closer look.

Books bound in human skin — and the sometimes sensational stories surrounding them — have long occupied an odd place in the annals of the rare book world. Over the years, they have been whispered, bragged and joked about.

But over the past decade, the conversation has shifted. Many institutions whose collections include these books have sharply restricted access, as they have found themselves unexpectedly embroiled in the same debates about displaying — or even owning — human remains that have swept across museums.

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