A virtually complete 1,100-year-old Hebrew Bible, one of the oldest surviving ancient manuscripts, may soon be yours for $30 million.
In May, Sotheby’s in New York will auction off the Codex Sassoon, a leather-bound, handwritten parchment book almost entirely containing the Hebrew Bible.
The planned sale illustrates how, despite a global economic downturn, the market for art, antiquities, and ancient texts is still robust.
Sotheby’s is generating interest to entice collectors and institutions to buy.
The price has been set at $30 million to $50 million.
The text began a week-long exhibition on Wednesday in Tel Aviv’s ANU Museum of the Jewish People as part of a quick worldwide tour of the relic in the UK, Israel, and the US before its anticipated sale.
According to Yosef Ofer, a professor of Bible studies at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, “there are three ancient Hebrew Bibles from this period: the Codex Sassoon and Aleppo Codex from the 10th century, and the Leningrad Codex from the early 11th century.”
Only a few fragmented early medieval writings and the Dead Sea Scrolls are older, and “a whole Hebrew Bible is relatively rare,” he added.
Jewish scholars known as Masoretes began codifying oral traditions of correct spelling, pronouncing, punctuating, and chanting the words of Judaism’s holiest book several centuries before the Codex Sassoon was produced. In contrast to Torah scrolls, which lack vowels and punctuation in the Hebrew letters, these manuscripts had copious annotations that showed readers how to pronounce the words correctly.
It’s unclear exactly when and where the Codex Sassoon was created. According to Sharon Liberman Mintz, a senior Judaica specialist at Sotheby’s, the parchment’s radiocarbon dating yielded a range of dates between 880 and 960.
The writing style of the codex points to an unidentified scribe from Egypt or the Levant who lived in the early 10th century as the author.
Mintz states, “it’s like the emergence of the biblical text as we know it now.” It is fundamental to world culture as well as Judaism.
Although it is unquestionably old and unique, experts claim that the Codex Sassoon lacks the reputation and caliber of its contemporary, the Aleppo Codex.
Kim Phillips, a Bible expert at the Cambridge University Library, declared that “Any Masoretic scholar in their right mind would prefer the Aleppo Codex over the Sassoon Codex, without any regret or hesitation.” In comparison to its predecessor, the scribal quality was “shockingly sloppy,” according to him.
For around 1,000 years, the Aleppo Codex, which dates to about 930, has been regarded as the most reliable copy of the Masoretic Bible.
In the margins of the Codex Sassoon, a later researcher made an annotation claiming to have compared the text of the manuscript to that of the Aleppo Codex. The scholar referred to the manuscript as “the Crown” in Arabic.
There is no question that the Aleppo Codex is more precise than the Sassoon Codex, according to Ofer. The Codex Sassoon’s 792 pages make up around 92% of the Hebrew Bible, but because it is missing (a third of its pages), there is enormous relevance to this text in lost parts.
Until the 20th century, Syrian Jewish communities kept these priceless texts safe and treasured them. The Sassoon Codex’s survival over the years is an epic in and of itself.
According to a note in the text, it was previously owned by Khalaf ben Abraham, Isaac ben Ezekiel al-Attar, and his sons Ezekiel and Maimon.
Later, it moved east to Makisin, now in northeast Syria, and was converted into a synagogue in the 13th century. The synagogue was eventually demolished, and Salama ibn Abi al-Fakhr was given custody of the codex until a new synagogue could be built.
The book was still around, but it was never repaired.
Its whereabouts for the following 500 years are unknown, but it was discovered again in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1929 and was purchased by a renowned Jewish manuscript collector whose name it now retains.
The Son of an Iraqi Jewish business magnate, David Solomon Sassoon, was born in Bombay and lived in London with a vast collection of Jewish manuscripts.
In terms of quantity and what he could locate, his capacity was astonishing, according to Raquel Ukeles, chief of collections at Israel’s National Library.
Sassoon traveled around Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa collecting antiquarian literature; by his death in 1942, he had over 1,200 manuscripts in his collection.
The codex was sold by Sotheby’s in Zurich in 1978 to the British Rail Pension Fund, which had begun investing in art several years previously, for about $320,000 when Sassoon’s estate was divided up following his passing.
Eleven years later, the pension fund sold the Codex Sassoon for ten times its original hammer price. It was purchased for $3.19 million by banker and art collector Jacqui Safra in 1989, and it is currently up for sale.
The Luzzatto Machzor, a 14th-century prayerbook sold for $8.3 million in 2021, was the most expensive Jewish document ever sold.
If the target price is reached, the Codex Sassoon may surpass it. Also, it might top the record for the most expensive historical item ever sold at a public auction. A U.S. copy from 1787 now holds that distinction.
In 2021, Constitution was sold for $43 million.
Prices for Judaica manuscripts have increased recently, but Yoel Finkelman, a former curator of Judaica at Israel’s National Library, claimed that Sotheby’s recommended range is “in a different league.”
Only a few affluent collectors and few organizations could afford such a premium. Nonetheless, there are examples of museums working together to purchase priceless manuscripts or wealthy donors giving their acquisitions to libraries and other organizations.
When Sassoon’s collection was sold at auction in the 1970s, Ukeles claimed that the National Library could acquire seven of his manuscripts, but “this one slipped away. Hence, this is a chance to return home with this magnificent treasure.