In the heart of New York City, The Morgan Library & Museum began as the private library of financier Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), one of the preeminent collectors and cultural benefactors in the United States. As early as 1890 Morgan had begun to assemble a collection of illuminated, literary, and historical manuscripts, early printed books, and old master drawings and prints. In 1896, Morgan acquired his first major group of bibliographic monuments: a Gutenberg Bible on vellum, the Complutensian Polyglot, and all four Shakespeare Folios in a single purchase from the London dealer Henry Sotheran. His printed book collections were greatly expanded with the acquisition of three major libraries—that of the late London book dealer James Toovey in 1899, Theodore Irwin from Oswego, NY in 1900, and Richard Bennett of Manchester, England in 1902. These collections added over 6,000 volumes of incunabula (including a second Gutenberg Bible), rare 16th-century imprints, early Americana, and extensive collections of European and English literature to Morgan’s library. In 1905 he hired Belle da Costa Greene to be his librarian, and her keen eye helped to focus Morgan’s collecting towards bibliographic rarities, special imprints, and unica. She alone was responsible for acquiring the sixteen rare William Caxton imprints from the Lord Amherst of Hackney sale in 1908.
Mr. Morgan’s library, as it was known in his lifetime, was built between 1902 and 1906 adjacent to his New York residence to house is growing book collections. Designed by Charles McKim of the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, the library was intended as something more than a repository of rare materials. Majestic in appearance yet intimate in scale, the structure was to reflect the nature and stature of its holdings. In 1924, eleven years after Pierpont Morgan’s death, his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr. (1867–1943) realized that the library had become too important to remain in private hands. In what constituted one of the most momentous cultural gifts in U.S. history, he fulfilled his father’s intention of making the library and its treasures available to scholars and the public alike by transforming it into a public institution. The 2006 Renzo Piano expansion further fulfilled Morgan’s original intention by increasing public exhibition space by more than fifty percent and adding important visitor amenities, including a new performance hall, a new reading room for researchers, and collections storage. In 2016 the Morgan welcomed over 200,000 visitors and 1,800 researchers. Today the collection contains approximately 85,000 printed books, of which about 14,000 are imprints from before 1650 covered by the Preserving the World’s Rarest Books project.