Sotheby’s hopes for record sale of ancient Hebrew Bible

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One of the oldest surviving biblical manuscripts, a nearly complete 1,100-year-old Hebrew Bible, could soon be yours — for 30 million dollars (£24.5 million).

The Codex Sassoon, a leather-bound, handwritten parchment tome containing almost the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, is set to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York in May.

Its anticipated sale speaks to the still bullish market for art, antiquities and ancient manuscripts even in a worldwide bear economy.

Sotheby’s is drumming up interest in hopes of enticing institutions and collectors to bite. It has put the price tag at an eye-watering 30 million dollars to 50 million dollars (£40.7 million).

The Codex Sassoon
The Codex Sassoon dates back more than 1,000 years (Kin Cheung/AP)

“There are three ancient Hebrew Bibles from this period,” said Yosef Ofer, a professor of bible studies at Israel’s Bar Ilan University: the Codex Sassoon and Aleppo Codex from the 10th century, and the Leningrad Codex, from the early 11th century.

Only the Dead Sea Scrolls and a handful of fragmentary early medieval texts are older, and “an entire Hebrew Bible is relatively rare”, he said.

Starting a few centuries before the Codex Sassoon’s creation, Jewish scholars known as Masoretes started codifying oral traditions of how to properly spell, pronounce, punctuate and chant the words of Judaism’s holiest book.

Unlike Torah scrolls, where the Hebrew letters are devoid of vowels and punctuation, these manuscripts contained extensive annotation instructing readers how to recite the words correctly.

Precisely where and when the Codex Sassoon was made remains uncertain.

The Codex Sassoon on display in Tel Aviv
The Codex Sassoon on display in Tel Aviv (Ariel Schalit/AP)

“It’s like the emergence of the biblical text as we know it today,” Ms Mintz said. “It’s so foundational not only for Judaism, but also for world culture.”

Though it is certainly ancient and rare, scholars say the Codex Sassoon does not match the pedigree and quality of its contemporary — the Aleppo Codex.

“Any Masoretic scholar in their right mind would take the Aleppo Codex over the Sassoon Codex, without any regret or hesitation,” said Kim Phillips, a bible expert at the Cambridge University Library. He said the scribal quality was “surprisingly sloppy” compared to its counterpart.

The Aleppo Codex, dated to around 930, has been considered the gold standard of the Masoretic bibles for around 1,000 years. The Codex Sassoon’s margins contain an annotation from a later scholar who says he checked its text against the Aleppo Codex.

These venerable manuscripts were protected and treasured by Syrian Jewish communities for centuries until the 20th century. How the Sassoon Codex survived the ages is an epic in its own right.

A note on the manuscript attests to its owners in centuries past: A man named Khalaf ben Abraham gave it to Isaac ben Ezekiel al-Attar, who gave it to his sons Ezekiel and Maimon.

The Codex Sassoon
The Codex Sassoon (Kin Cheung/AP)

It never was rebuilt, but the book survived.

Its whereabouts for the next 500 years remain uncertain until it resurfaced in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1929, and was bought by a legendary collector of Jewish manuscripts whose name it still bears.

David Solomon Sassoon was a Bombay-born son of an Iraqi Jewish business magnate who filled his London home with a massive collection of Jewish manuscripts.

“His capacity was astounding, both in terms of number but also in terms of what he was able to find,” said Raquel Ukeles, head of collections at Israel’s National Library.

Mr Sassoon roved across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa buying up old books, and by his death in 1942, he had amassed more than 1,200 manuscripts.

His estate was broken up after he died and the codex was sold by Sotheby’s in Zurich in 1978 to the British Rail Pension Fund, which had started investing in art several years earlier, for around 320,000 dollars.

The pension fund flipped the Codex Sassoon 11 years later for 10 times its hammer price. Jacqui Safra, a banker and art collector, bought it in 1989 for 3.19 million dollars and is now putting it up for auction.

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