Rare Jewish Bibles, Talmud May Fetch $40 000 000 at Sotheby’s

A Franco-German Pentateuch written in an Ashkenazic script during the 10th or 11th century from the Valmadonna Library Trust, the finest private collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world, is shown in this undated handout photo

Feb. 17 – The world’s first printed edition of the Talmud — nine 16th-century volumes that gather centuries of rabbinic debate on Jewish law — is now on view at Sotheby’s in New York.

The so-called Bomberg Talmud — named after its Christian publisher, Daniel Bomberg — was printed in Hebrew and Aramaic in Venice between 1519 and 1523. It’s one of the treasures among some 13 000 books in the Valmadonna Trust Library, which Sotheby’s says may fetch at least $40 000 000. The auction house is selling the collection privately.

“The sheer depth and breadth and condition of this library are unparalleled,” Arthur Kiron, curator of Judaica collections at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a telephone interview. “There’s nothing else like it in private hands.”

The U.S. Library of Congress is among those institutions that have expressed interest in housing the library — if a wealthy donor or consortium can be found to make the purchase, according to David Redden, Sotheby’s vice chairman.

“We’ve been interested in this collection for a considerable time,” said Dr. James Billington, U.S. Librarian of Congress, in a telephone interview. “It would find a great home here.”

However, Billington added, “We don’t remotely have those resources.”

Most of the collection was assembled by the London-based, industrial diamond merchant Jack Lunzer in the decades since World War II.

Lunzer, 84, acts as the custodian of the trust, which is controlled by the family of his late wife. Its trustees include the couple’s five children, Lunzer said.

‘Major Resource’

“The trust is very strict on what it does,” Lunzer said. “Trustees would only release the library to an institution that can maintain it.”

Lunzer said the trust had not considered donating the collection. “It’s a major resource. It could never be put together again,” he said.

The Sotheby’s exhibition displays some 11 000 items in the library. On a recent morning, scores of uniformed school girls and religious Jews stared at the nine massive Talmud books displayed open, under glass.

Arranged on floor-to-ceiling shelves, many more books are grouped by their place of origin — Antwerp, Venice, Fez, Prague, and Calcutta — and reflect the geographic reach of the Jewish Diaspora.

They include both spiritual and secular titles — most of them in Hebrew. Countless examples of the Jewish Bible and Talmud share shelf space with Kabalistic texts, prayer books, legal texts and philosophical treatises.

History of Bookmaking

In addition to having “a profound significance for the study of Jewish history,” the collection is also an important resource for understanding how the books were made over the centuries, the University of Pennsylvania’s Kiron said.

The earliest manuscript in the library is a Franco-German Pentateuch, written between the 10th and 11th centuries. Another highlight is the only surviving manuscript written in England before the expulsion of the Jews in 1290.

The Bomberg Talmud had collected dust at the Westminster Abbey in London for four centuries. Lunzer, who first spotted the rare books at a 1956 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, spent 25 years chasing after them. Eventually, he managed to trade the set for a 900-year-old copy of the Abbey’s original charter.

“It was a mad dream to imagine that I should acquire this work,” Lunzer said.

The Valmadonna Trust Library collection is on view through Feb. 19 at Sotheby’s New York headquarters.

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Published in: on February 20, 2009 at 7:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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