Josef Koller is a collector of antique prints who has devoted much of his life to finding rare and valuable books. During a recent stroll through Vienna, he walked into a little bookstore tucked away in one of the city's narrow streets. And there, resting - almost forgotten - on a dusty shelf lay one of the most important pedagogical works of the 17th century.
Josef Koller is dumbstruck. The collector from Uhersky Brod - a small town in south-eastern Moravia - is now the proud owner of "Janua linguarum reserata" or "The Gate of Languages Unlocked" one of the most successful works by Moravian philosopher and theologian John Amos Comenius. Only two copies of this book were believed to have survived all these centuries. One of them can be found in Mannheim, Germany, and the other here in Prague in the library of the Strahov Monastery.
"I have been visiting flea markets since I was a child. I go to all kinds of auctions. You wouldn't believe what one can find in places like these. I had no idea what I was holding. But I knew that it was valuable because it was covered in gothic parchment. Here at the museum, where they have thousands of books, they have only one single book that is covered in parchment. Also, the date 1654 caught my attention because it was sixteen years before Comenius' death."
The owner of the Vienna bookstore had no idea he had been holding such a gem in his collection. The textbook is an important piece of pedagogical literature because it revolutionized teaching Latin. But the book also describes useful practical facts about the natural world and life. Written in both Czech and Latin, it was translated into over a dozen languages. Now, the book collector is storing the third copy in a safe. But although Josef Koller's continuous raids of bookshops, markets, and auctions have paid off it will not stop here:
"About twenty years ago, an old hunched man in a dirty old coat came into an antiquarian bookshop in Bratislava with a list of some 12 to 15 of Comenius' books. Among them were this one and another that I have since acquired. He asked the antiquarian how much the books would sell for if he were to bring them. The dealer was completely taken aback by the offer. It is difficult to put a price on such prints. But the old man never appeared there again, he probably passed away, and I am on a journey to look for these books. I know neither his name nor where he was from but have a trail to follow in Slovakia."
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