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Tel Aviv ANU–Museum of the Jewish People buys Codex Sassoon for $38.1 million

The near-complete Hebrew Bible edged out a volume by Leonardo da Vinci as the most expensive sold at auction ever.

Codex Sassoon sells for $33.5 million, a record for a book sold at auction, at Sotheby's in New York on May 17, 2023.  Credit: Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Codex Sassoon sells for $33.5 million, a record for a book sold at auction, at Sotheby's in New York on May 17, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Sotheby's.

First, there was the possibility that Renaissance man par excellence Leonardo da Vinci was Jewish. Now, the oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible, Codex Sassoon, which dates to around the year 900, beat da Vinci’s Codex Leicester as the most expensive book ever sold at auction.

Business magnate Bill Gates bought the latter for $30.8 million in 1994.

On May 17, Tel Aviv’s ANU–Museum of the Jewish People bought Codex Sassoon for $33.5 million at Sotheby’s auction house in New York. (Although the Hebrew volume is a higher price, the da Vinci manuscript is pricier when adjusted for inflation; with the buyer’s premium, a charge in addition to the hammer price, the sale totaled $38.1 million.)

Alfred H. Moses, a former U.S. ambassador to Romania and active member of the Georgetown Jewish community, and his family purchased the Hebrew manuscript on behalf of the American Friends of ANU and gifted it to the museum, according to a press release from the auction house. Moses is chair of the museum’s international board of governors.

“The hammer fell after a four-minute bidding battle between two determined bidders,” Sotheby’s stated.

Michelle Margolis, librarian for Jewish studies at Columbia University and president of the Association of Jewish Libraries, told JNS that when the manuscript first came up for auction, many assumed it would “disappear into private hands, which is what happened to the Luzzatto Mahzor.”

“It was easy for keyboard warriors to say ‘this should go to a museum,’ but for a donor to actually lay out that kind of money to make it happen? That—that is the best possible outcome from the point of view of those of us in the rare book and manuscript world,” she said. “No institution has that kind of flexible funding. I’m so thrilled to see this happen.”

Simona Di Nepi, Judaica curator at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a former curator of nearly three years at ANU–Museum of the Jewish People. She told JNS that she dreams of the Boston museum acquiring a Hebrew manuscript.

“If these are the price tags, it will stay that way,” she told JNS.

Di Nepi said it is an achievement for a museum, rather than a private collector, to secure such a rare manuscript, which will be available for the public to enjoy.

“What is even more poignant is that it goes to a museum that in its early days of its foundation in 1979, and for many years following that, set an example and became a model of a museum without a collection,” she said.

In its former iteration as Beit Hatfutsot: The Diaspora Museum, the museum pioneered “the successful new way” to function without a permanent collection, according to Di Nepi. “It was known for its wonderful dioramas, synagogue models and replicas,” she said. “In the past few years, curators started to form a collection for the new ANU, and now, it has managed to acquire a Hebraica celebrity.”

The move, she said, went from replicas to a very pricy original.

Herschel Hepler, associate curator of Hebrew manuscripts at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., told JNS: “It’s a good day in the world of Jewish books, Jewish culture and public access.”

“It feels right. For Alfred Moses to buy it and donate it to the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, it feels right for the manuscript to return to the seat of the Masoretic tradition, for the Aleppo Codex and ‘the Brother of Aleppo’ to rest so close to one another,” he added.

Video credit: Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

“Very pleased that Codex Sassoon. which sold for $33.5 million at Sotheby’s today, will go to the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. Thank you to Alfred Moses and his family for making this happen,” tweeted Haim Gottschalk, Judaica librarian at the Library of Congress.

The volume had been expected to sell for between $30 million and $50 million.

Moses referred to the volume as “the most influential book in history” in a release from the museum, which stated it would be displayed as part of the permanent collection.

“The Hebrew Bible is the most influential book in history and constitutes the bedrock of Western civilization. I rejoice in knowing that it belongs to the Jewish People. It was my mission, realizing the historic significance of Codex Sassoon, to see that it resides in a place with global access to all people,” he stated.

“In my heart and mind, that place was the land of Israel, the cradle of Judaism, where the Hebrew Bible originated. In Israel at ANU, it will be preserved for generations to come as the centerpiece and gem of the entire and extensive display and presence of the Jewish story,” he added.

Sharon Liberman Mintz, Sotheby’s senior specialist for Judaica, books and manuscripts, stated that the “record-breaking result directly reflects the profound power, influence and significance of the Hebrew Bible, which is an indispensable pillar of humanity.”

The Codex Sassoon (late ninth to early 10th century). Credit: Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
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