New York – A rare trove of 11,000 Hebrew books and manuscripts went on display at Sotheby’s this week as the auction house seeks to find a buyer for what is considered the greatest collection of Judaica in private hands.
The Valmadonna Trust Library includes documents of unparalleled significance including a copy of a 16th-century Hebrew Bible once owned by Westminster Abbey. Some have burn or water marks or other signs of religious persecution.
“I don’t know any other collection quite like it in private hands. It even rivals some of the great institutional collections in the world,” Arthur Kiron, curator of Judaica collections at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “There are very few cultural moments like this one where a collection of such great significance is made available for sale.”
The complete library, valued at more than $40 million, is being shown in its entirety for the first time at Sotheby’s Manhattan galleries until Feb. 19. The trust has asked the auction house to facilitate the sale of the complete collection to a public institution or private collector. It will not break up the collection or sell individuals works.
The Valmadonna Library is the lifelong pursuit of Jack Lunzer, an 88-year-old collector from London who was in New York on Monday for the opening of the exhibition.
Lunzer will not benefit from the proceeds of the sale, which is being handled by the trust, which will also decide whether to accept an offer from a collector or an institution.
But Lunzer has made his wishes known. “I would like our library to be acquired by the Library of Congress,” he said. “That would be my great joy.”
Sharon Mintz, curator of Jewish art at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which owns the largest public collection of Judaica in the United States, said any institution that acquired the library would immediately be catapulted “to one of the top-tier places of study of Hebrew culture.”
Lunzer’s most prized acquisition – one he pursued for more than 25 years – is a nearly pristine complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud printed in 1519-1523 by Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer of Hebrew books.
The Talmud is a vast record of Jewish laws and traditions, and the nine-volume, leather-bound Bomberg copy is recognized as one of the most significant texts in the history of Hebrew printing, on which all other Talmud editions are modeled.
Lunzer said he first learned of its existence at the library of Westminster Abbey, where it had resided for four centuries, in 1951. He vowed then that he would own it one day. That dream was realized when he was able to purchase a 900-year-old copy of the Abbey’s original charter and offer it in exchange for the Talmud.
“A library of this sort has immense responsibility,” he said. “It spans hundreds of years of printing of liturgies, Bibles and above all else, the misery of the plight of Jews.”
He was referring to the physical condition of some of the books, including censors’ ink and burn and water marks.
“There were book bannings and book burnings and endless efforts to try and destroy the culture of the Jews,” Sotheby’s vice chairman David Redden said. The books are “important not just because of the information they contain but because of the stories they tell, how difficult life was.”
Redden said that from the very beginning, Lunzer set out to assemble a library of early printing from every town and village that had a Hebrew printing press. That included such places as Calcutta and Bombay in India, Cairo and Shanghai, where Jews sought refuge during the Holocaust.
Books from Italy, the cradle of Hebrew printing, dominate the collection. There’s also a huge collection of books from Constantinople and Jerusalem, and rare handwritten, illustrated texts and broadsheets dating to the 10th century.
Among the early handwritten books is a 1189 Pentateuch, or Hebrew Bible, known as the Codex Valmadonna I. It is the only dated Hebrew text to survive from medieval England, written before the Jews’ expulsion in 1290.
Outside the United States, the great collections of Judaica are found in the British Library, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, La Bibliotheque Nationale in France and the National Library of Israel.
The collection is displayed in four large rooms at Sotheby’s Manhattan galleries.
Before coming to New York, it was housed in Lunzer’s home, in “every single corner, nook and cranny, closet and attic,” Redden said. Even a garden shed was converted into a repository for the books.
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