Thursday, March 30, 2023
HomeMarketA ‘Crucial Bridge’ to History, the Codex Sassoon Could Fetch $50 Million

A ‘Crucial Bridge’ to History, the Codex Sassoon Could Fetch $50 Million

- Advertisement -

A more than 1,000-year-old Hebrew bible known as the Codex Sassoon is being sold by Swiss investor and collector Jacqui Safra in May at Sotheby’s in New York for an estimated US$30 million to US$50 million. 

The codex is said to be the earliest and most complete example of a Hebrew Bible, dating to the late ninth or early 10th century.

The manuscript “radiates such power,” says Sharon Mintz, Sotheby’s senior Judaica specialist in its books and manuscripts division. “It’s exciting to see and turn the pages, and to imagine the hands that have passed through it and who studied it, and how the history of the bible evolved from this authoritative text.”

This ancient manuscript is called a codex and not a book because it was written on parchment and before the development of paper. Its name comes from David Solomon Sassoon, a private collector of Judaica and Hebraica manuscripts who purchased the manuscript in 1929 numbering it 1053, the last entry in his vast collection.

The earliest known writings of the Hebrew Bible are in the 230 fragments that comprise the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written from the third century B.C.E. until the end of the first century C.E. But these writings were created in a scroll format and not bound as a bible.

There is no record over the next 700 years of a written bible, with Jews thought to be relying instead of inherited oral traditions. “Nobody knows why,” says Mintz, who is also curator of Jewish art at the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. “Presumably, there must have been books earlier. But the earliest examples we have, and certainly the earliest biblical codices we have, are from the late ninth and early 10th century. And there are only two.”

The other known early Hebrew Bible is the Aleppo Codex, which Sotheby’s describes as another “exceptionally accurate version of the biblical text” that was created around 930. But that codex is missing nearly all of the Pentateuch, which is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

The Codex Sassoon has 24 books divided into the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings, Sotheby’s said. About 15 chapters are missing, including 10 from Genesis, but it is far more complete than the Aleppo Codex. Another known example, the Leningrad Codex, is “entirely complete,” but is more than a century younger than the Sassoon, Sotheby’s said.

This all means the Codex Sassoon is a “crucial bridge” for Jewish biblical history to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and “foundational to civilization itself,” as Sotheby’s said on its website. “It standardized and stabilized the Hebrew text of the Bible,” Mintz says.

The history of the Codex Sassoon holds several decades of mystery. Notes within the text include an entry of an 11th-century sale of the Bible by Khalaf ben Abraham, who Sotheby’s said was possibly a businessman active in Israel and Syria, to Isaac ben Ezekiel al-Attar. Al-Attar then gave it to his sons, Ezekiel and Maimon.

About 200 years later, Sotheby’s said the bible was dedicated to a synagogue in a city once known as Makisin (which today is Markada) that had existed in northeastern Syria. But the manuscript was removed from the synagogue as the town of Makisin was being destroyed possibly by Mongols in the 13th century. It was then given to a member of the community, Salama bin Abi al-Fakhr, who was to return it to the synagogue if it was rebuilt, Sotheby’s said.

But nobody knows what happened after the late 1400s until Sassoon became aware of it in 1929 from Aron Freimann, a preeminent scholar of Hebrew manuscripts in Frankfurt, Germany, Mintz says. Freimann was offered the Bible but couldn’t afford it, so he reached out to Sassoon, who he knew as an important collector.

The person who offered it to Freimann and who might have held some clue as to where it was for centuries, is unknown, as the scholar’s personal papers were lost after he fled Nazi Germany, Mintz says.

“Its survival is astonishing,” she says.

Sassoon paid £350 for the manuscript, which at the time was more than all but four other manuscripts in his collection, Mintz says.

The British Rail Pension Fund, which had bought the Bible from Sassoon’s heirs for US$320,000 in 1978, put it up for auction at Sotheby’s in 1989. Safra thought his uncle would bid on it and so held back; another bidder instead bought it for US$3.19 million. Safra went to this buyer and offered US$4.19 million to secure it for himself, Mintz says.

During his stewardship of the manuscript, Safra arranged for carbon dating analysis that confirmed it was created in the late ninth or early 10th century. Mintz says that Safra, who recently also sold important works by Old Masters at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, is ready to show this treasure to the world.

“He enjoyed it, he studied it, he has allowed scholars to study it—this touches him deeply and he’s looking forward to sharing it and finding a new caretaker,” she says.

The estimated price being offered today for the Codex Sassoon is consistent with other important manuscripts recently up for auction at Sotheby’s, such as the November 2021 sale of the U.S. Constitution for a record US$43 million. But Mintz notes that there are multiple copies of the constitution, but only one of the Codex Sassoon.

“This is one of the world’s greatest treasures,” Mintz says. “We looked at other items that have sold recently and priced it according to how highly we value it and how highly the world will value it. This is a once in a generation opportunity.”

The Codex Sassoon will be sold on May 16 at Sotheby’s in New York at the same time as the auction house’s marquee contemporary and modern art sales. The codex will be displayed in London from Feb. 22 to Feb. 28, followed by a tour to Tel Aviv, Israel, Dallas, and Los Angeles, before it returns to New York by May 7.


- Advertisment -

Most Popular