Judaica scholars and historians are weeping; the largest rare Hebrew Judaica manuscript collection in the world has been broken up. Sotheby’s auction house sold one lot of 12 items from the expansive Valmadonna Trust Library in an auction held on Tuesday, Dec 22, 2015, raking in nearly $15 million. The early 16th century Complete Babylonian Talmud printed by Daniel Bomberg in Venice brought in just over $9 million alone. The Talmud is the cornerstone and the most prized item in the collection of “300 handwritten Hebrew documents and 13,000 rare printed Hebrew books,” half of all rare Hebrew manuscripts and books created and printed in that early era. The collection is considered “the most important private library of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world.” The collector and custodian Jack Lunzer had always hoped the collection would be sold as a unit, but the price was too high and twice could not garner a sale at auction.
The collector Jack Lunzer was a British industrial diamond merchant. Lunzer was born in 1924 in Antwerp, Belgium, but he grew up in London, England. Lunzer amassed the single largest library of Hebrew manuscripts during the last seven decades; no other collection at any institution rivals it. Lunzer was not the originator of the library, his wife Ruth Zippel’s family was, and they acquired almost all the Hebrew books printed in 16th century Italy in the early 20th century. Lunzer and his wife took the collection hidden in a Milan basement during World War II to London in 1948 after they married.
The trust incorporated in Liechtenstein technically owns and controls the collection. At the end of World War II when Lunzer started to build and expand the library, there were only a few hundred books. At the time, Lunzer collected the books mostly in the 1960s and 70s they were quite cheap, he amassed them through auctions, books sales, and many came from purchasing the collection of his former liturgy teacher, Solomon Sassoon. Sotheby’s explains, “Lunzer sought the finest possible copies of books that are not only rare but truly significant for illustrating and understanding the Jewish Diaspora.” The library is named after a small Italian town with a connection to the Zippel family. Italy is considered “the cradle of Hebrew printing.” Lunzer took 50 years to create his collection that he kept in his London home and organized by region published, before their 2009 move to Sotheby’s.
The collection compromises 13,000 books and manuscripts all in Hebrew, and it represents millennia of history of Hebrew manuscripts. Among the types of manuscripts and books in the library are “Mishnaot, siddurim, Haggadot, alef-bet tables, and ephemera,” some of which are printed on rare “blue paper, vellum, and silk.” Well used the books and manuscripts were hardly in mint condition when purchased. Lunzer wanted to make his books as perfect, and he purchased multiple copies as possible and rebound them. Sotheby’s described the library as “boasting rarities dating from the 10th century to the early 20th century from Italy, Holland, England, Greece, Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, India, and China, documenting the spread of the Hebrew press and the dissemination of Jewish culture around the globe.”
The majority of the books come from Italy, Spain, Turkey, Portugal, and Amsterdam, medieval Jewish centers, where scholarship flowed. Most of the manuscripts were created on vellum or silk paper, the illuminated ones are decorated with gold leaf, have painted scenes or “intricate borders and illustrations.” The earliest codex in the entire collection is a Franco-German copy of the Pentateuch written in an Ashkenazic script during the tenth or eleventh century,” which also happens to be “one of the earliest texts of the Five Books of Moses written anywhere in Europe.” Rothem describes the library as her father’s “life’s work.” Since his wife died in 1978, it preoccupied him for than anything else, and he often studied their meanings.
The books reveal more than just a history of Hebrew manuscript, but also delineate Jewish history for the last thousand years. The gaps in time and geographical areas show as the New York Times pointed out “implicitly mark periods of decline,” where Jewish communities were “exterminated” or their books burned. Lunzer specifically looked to recount Sephardic Jewish history, the expulsion from Spain to Italy and then the Ottoman Empire and Amsterdam. Christopher de Hamel, the former head of Sotheby’s Western Manuscripts division, commented to Tablet in 2009, “You suddenly begin to glimpse what it means to gather the written Jewish heritage.”
The library possessed “nearly half” of the 140 incunable books from early 15th-century printing and two-third of Hebrew books printed in the latter half of the 16th century. Sotheby’s describes, “The term “incunable” comes from the Latin for swaddling clothes or cradle and is applied to books produced during the “infancy” of Western typographic printing.” Although printing began in 15th century Germany, Germans would not allow Jews in the guilds and work the printing presses, and therefore only when printing came to Italy and Rome did Jews began printing Hebrew books using even the “same print shops” as their Christian counterparts.
The early Hebrew printing shops were located in Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula, before the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492. The early books included primarily religious texts; Bibles, and legal texts and Biblical exegesis, but some secular texts as well. The Valmadonna Library includes the last printed Hebrew Bible in Spain before the expulsion. The library is not just compromised of religious Hebrew texts, but also “Latin books by Jewish authors and Christian texts of Jewish interest.” The majority of Jewish texts, however, were religious, and read and studied often, Jewish texts had an additional problem Christians censored or burned their books, making the sheer number the Valmadonna Library has from that era that more incredible.
The library has been at Sotheby’s since 2009 when Lunzer first tried to sell it as a whole. It was exhibited there and available to scholars organized by country of origin as it had been in Lunzer’s home. At the 2009 exhibit, 4,000 people visited it each day of a 10-day exhibit in February. The sale on Tuesday ends the complete access with12 of the most prized books, and manuscripts were sold off. The 12 sold in the first lot represent the “rarest and highest-priced books” of the collection. Scholars, who had been conducting research, are losing access to these books, but it is not only a loss to them but also the entire academic community.
David Redden, Vice Chairman, Sotheby’s New York, told the press when the auction was first announced in November: “What a monument to the life and the faith and the struggles and the repeated dispersal of the Jewish people! Books from every corner of the Diaspora in Europe, Asia, and Africa, each book marks a town or village where Jews had insistently set up a printing press or sustained a tradition by writing a manuscript! The Valmadonna Library is the greatest assemblage of such books in private hands in the world.”
Redden recounted the collection’s history with Sotheby’s, “When it briefly went on public view in 2009 the enthusiastic crowds of visitors created new attendance records for a Sotheby’s exhibition. The Trustees of The Valmadonna Library have now agreed to return these astonishing books to the marketplace where institutions and collectors can build or add to their own great collections. Sale I contains only 12 treasures out of 11,000 books. Although limited in size this first sale speaks to the magnificence of this great library. Beauty, faith, tradition, history: Valmadonna.”
Sotheby’s Consultant David Wachtel also commented on the library, “The sheer scope of this collection leaves me breathless. It is meticulously curated, comprising thousands of books, printed in hundreds of cities, written in over a dozen languages. Upon its pages are inscribed the tale of a people’s history and culture, as well as the tenets of their faith. Working with the Valmadonna Trust Library, and its indefatigable Custodian, Jack Lunzer, has been among the highlights of my professional career as a bookman.”
Academics are not as excited as Sotheby’s that the collection is being sold separately and see it as a loss for further research. Brad Sabin Hill, the curator of the I. Edward Kiev Judaica Collection at George Washington University, spoke to the Forward lamenting the sale, “It would be a terrible loss to the Hebrew booklore to have the rest of the printed book collection dispersed. I would consider that to be unfortunate.” Commenting in 2010 to the Forward David Stern, a professor of Classic Hebrew Literature at the University of Pennsylvania also criticized the dispersion of the collection. Professor Stern said, “While we do not yet know what will happen to the library, its possible disappearance as an integral collection would be a colossal loss to Jewish culture.”
Sotheby’s tried to auction the entire collection twice before; in 2009 with an asking price of $40 million and again in 2011 for a price of $25 million. There were two caveats for its sale at the time, the collection could not be broken up, and it had to be accessible to scholars. Lunzer said at the time, “I would like our library to be acquired by the Library of Congress. That would be my great joy.” Lunzer also had expressed, “It would be the crown of the Library of Congress to have these things, and for the Jewish community in America. The world would gasp.”
Lunzer, 91 is suffering dementia, and the trustees have control of the collection. His eldest daughter, Margaret Rothem and his other four grown daughters are the beneficiaries, but they do not have an official say as to the library’s fate. Rothem and the library’s trustees are trying to justify the decision to sell off these rare books, and they have not revealed what the money will be used for or why they are going against Lunzer’s strict stipulations for selling the collection. All Sotheby’s divulged was that the money was going to the library’s trust.
The collection has always been too expensive and expansive for any person or institution to purchase in its entirety. Sotheby’s came close once to selling the whole collection twice. In 2010, there was an anonymous bidder “who met or exceeded the base asking price of $25 million,” but the sale fell through because they would not abide by the two stipulations. Many institutions have tried over the years to purchase the library. The Library of Congress wanted to purchase the collection back in 2002 offering $20 million just as Lunzer had hoped for the 350th anniversary of Jews arriving in America. Accounts varied about the sale’s collapse, from financial backers withdrawing funds to the trust asking more money.
Individual collectors might have the money, but do not have the space to house such a large library in its entirety. The senior Judaica consultant at Sotheby’s Sharon Liberman Mintz told the Forward the size “has made it difficult for any one person to absorb. And for the institutions, it was a big sum of money.” Sotheby’s and the trustees decided the only way to sell the library was by breaking it up. Redden said, “I think people respect the fact that we tried to sell the collection as a unit.”
Sale I included the first lot of 12 books, which could have been sold separately or as a unit depending on the buyer. Only nine of the 12 books put up for auction were sold with two of the most expensive items remaining. The first lot included two of the most prized books in the entire collection, “a copy of the Bomberg Talmud and a handwritten Pentateuch from 1189.” The Bomberg Talmud is from 1519 to 1539 and one of 14 sets surviving, and Daniel Bomberg, a Christian from Venice printed the first complete sets of Babylonian Talmuds. The Bomberg Talmud “is considered to be one of the most important documents in the history of Hebrew printing.” Stern commented that the Talmud “changed and revolutionized the way Jews studied this book.”
The Talmud was the treasure of Lunzer’s collection; it took him 25 years to convince Westminster Abbey in London, who owned it for centuries to sell it. Lunzer first discovered the set in 1956 during an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert museum celebrating the 300th anniversary of Jews returning to Britain however, Westminster was unwilling to sell the Talmud set. The British government, however, was trying to block the sale by a New York auction house of the Abbey’s 900-year-old charter dated December 28, 1065. Lunzer was able to purchase the copy of the charter, and he offered it up as a trade to which Westminster Abbey agreed. Lunzer finally acquired the Talmud set in 1980, and there had been a ceremony celebrating the occasion in the Abbey’s Jerusalem Chamber. The Talmud is valued at $5.7 million, but it was sold for $9.3 million, Sotheby’s said it was “a new world auction record for any piece of Judaica.”
The second most valuable item in the collection and was sold in Dec. 22 auction was the Hebrew Bible from England, the Pentateuch with Haftarot and the Five Scrolls, called by Lunzer Codex Valmadonna I. The handwritten text was created in 1189 in York, a year before the destruction of the Jewish community there were most of their books were looted and sold to Jews abroad. After the coronation of Richard I in September 1189, Christians began rioting against the Jewish community first in London and then spreading all throughout the country, York being the “culmination.” The Pentateuch is the only known surviving Hebrew text from the time before King Edward I expelled the Jewish community from the country in 1290. The text was dated 15 Tammuz 4949, 2 July 1189. The Bible was estimated to sell for between $2 and $4 million and did not disappoint selling at a just over $3.6 million.
The first lot of books from the Valmadonna Trust Library included the following:
Samaritan Torah Scroll (Aktaba Kadisha), Land of Israel [ca. 1166, Scribe: Shalmah ben Abraham bar Yosef of Sarepta] Estimate 40,000 – 80,000 USD LOT SOLD. 162,500 USD
Samaritan Pentateuch (Arhuta Kadishta), Land of Israel: late 14th-early 15th century Estimate
80,000 – 120,000 USD LOT SOLD. 87,500 USD
Decorated Hebrew Bible: (Pentateuch: Shemot-Devarim) Yemen: Early Fifteenth Century
Estimate 150,000 – 250,000 USD LOT SOLD. 187,500 USD
Hebrew Bible: Pentateuch with Masorah and Masoretic and Grammatical Introduction (Hamisha Humshei Torah with Mahberet ha-Tijan). Scribe: Benayah ben Sa’adyah ben Zechariah. Yemen: 1470 Estimate 200,000 – 300,000 USD LOT SOLD. 334,000 USD
Hebrew Bible: Pentateuch [Aragon: 11th-12th Century] Estimate 1,000,000 – 1,500,000 USD NOT SOLD
Hebrew Bible: Pentateuch and Haftarot with Targum [Franco-German: 12th-13th Century]
Estimate 1,500,000 – 2,000,000 USD NOT SOLD
Hebrew Bible: Pentateuch with Haftarot and the Five Scrolls, England: 15 Tammuz 4949=2 July 1189 Estimate 2,000,000 – 4,000,000 USD LOT SOLD. 3,610,000 USD
Illuminated Hebrew Bible: Psalms, with Commentary by David Kimhi. Scribe: Shem-Tov ben Samuel Barukh [Bologna]: 1401 Estimate 300,000 – 500,000 USD LOT SOLD. 670,000 USD
Tractate Pesahim [Provence: ca. 1447-1452] Estimate 300,000 – 500,000 USD NOT SOLD
Grace after Meals (Seder Birkat Ha-Mazon), Vienna: 1737 [Scribe-Artist: Ze’ev Wolf Herlingen]
Estimate 150,000 – 250,000 USD LOT SOLD. 382,000 USD
Order of Blessings for Meals…Occasional Blessings…and the Order of Prayers for Women… (Seder Tikun Se’udah…Birkot ha-Nehenin…ve-Seder Nashim…) [Vienna or Dresden?, circa 1725] Estimate 80,000 – 120,000 USD LOT SOLD. 112,500 USD
The Complete Babylonian Talmud, Printed by Daniel Bomberg in Venice, Comprising tractates from the First (1519/20-1523) and Second (1525-1539) Editions Estimate 5,000,000 – 7,000,000 USD LOT SOLD. 9,322,000 USD