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The 'Very Rich Hours' indeed

Harry N. Abrams Inc., has begun tooting its trumpets over what it considers to be just about the most important art book it has ever published - and it has published a lot of them in its time.

Just how important is this latest book?

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Well, if you want one for yourself, or if you and a group of fellow alumni wish to donate one to the alma mater's library of choice, it will set you back $ 6,800, and that's only if you run out and snap up a copy before June 1, 1985. After that, the book will cost you $8,000.

What kind of book is worth that kind of money, you may be asking yourself.

To understand the answer, it's necessary to see the book, which won't be officially published until October. Nevertheless, Abrams has an early copy in its office. The title is ''Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry,'' and it is a meticulously created facsimile of an illuminated manuscript produced in the 1400 s. To call it by its name in English, ''The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry'' is one of the finest of all medieval prayer books, and Abrams points out that its edition is the first and only complete facsimile of the work ever published.

As a historical note, a Book of Hours was an illustrated prayer book created especially for one particular worshipper, and a wealthy one at that. (The Duke of Berry, for instance, was the third son of King John the Good of France and the brother of Charles V.) The text was hand-lettered in Latin, and the profusion of vastly detailed paintings was elaborate in its depiction of biblical scenes as well as renderings from everyday life and from history.

The illustrations - or to use the vernacular in the field, the illuminations - appeared on nearly every page; they were full-page or miniature, rich in color and exquisitely endowed with gold and silver decorations. The capital letters within the text itself were also dressed up with filigree and representational figures.

Books of Hours have always been collectors' items of almost incalculable worth, and no more so in the past than today. Last December a 12th-century illuminated manuscript, Gospels of Henry the Lion, sold to a German consortium for $11.8 million. Reportedly, the group was ready to spring for $15 million if necessary to acquire the property, which had been created for a powerful German prince.

This is the setting in which Abrams is preparing to publish Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, three years after the American firm initially became involved in the project. Printed in up to nine colors and using four different kinds of gold and silver on the pages, the facsimile is being printed in Switzerland by a company that has produced other similar works, but none as important as this one, Abrams insists.

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Accompanying this facsimile is a commentary volume that translates the prayers, discusses all of the illuminations, and places the work in its historical context. Raymond Cazelles, curator of the collections in the Musee Conde at Chantilly, France (where the original copy of the book resides), is the editor of the commentary volume. The two books are encased in a lucite box for self-protection.

Adding to the book's allure is the fact that only 980 copies are being produced. Of those, 350 will have an English-language commentary volume. (The balance are in French or German.) And when these are gone, there will be no more.

A chat with Paul Gottlieb, head of Harry N. Abrams Inc., and Adele Westbrook, editor at Abrams, finds one dealing in superlatives. As they filled us in on the above details, it was clear that they are both in awe of the project. It's a feeling that will be shared by anyone who holds the book and looks through its wonderfully splendid pages.

''You try to make the publication of a book an event sometimes,'' says Gottlieb, ''and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But this time it is one. If you've been working with illustrated books for a long time - and I've been doing it for 22 years - this book is the culmination of everything.''

Adele Westbrook observes that Millard Meiss of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton calls the original manuscript ''a pinnacle in the entire history of painting.'' She adds that very few people have ever had a chance to see the book for themselves. In centuries past, only the privileged nobility could have studied the book, and these days, only a scholar with impeccable credentials would be allowed to view the original.

The facsimile is hand-finished and hand-bound in red leather just as the original was. The rich aroma of the fine leather is another aspect of the intoxicating aura of the book.

As Westbrook notes, the beauty of illuminated medieval manuscripts often obscured their intended purpose as personal prayer books, and it is certainly possible to be dazzled by this book without having an inkling as to what its religious text represents.

If you think you want to secure a copy, you may be able to see it first in one of your local bookstores. Abrams is sending two copies out on the road to tour a number of retail establishments that have expressed an interest in having the book come for a visit. The stores, in turn, will invite some of their choice customers to a showing.

Or, if you are truly, seriously considering buying one of the 350 copies that Abrams has for sale, Paul Gottlieb says that you are welcome to come to Abrams's office at 100 Fifth Avenue in New York. There, you can have your own private viewing of Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

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