Codex Sassoon, oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible, purchased for $38.1 million

Rare, 1,100-year-old manuscript to be displayed at ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv after former US envoy to Romania submits winning bid

Sotheby's auctioneer Benjamin Doller takes bids on the Codex Sassoon in New York City on May 17, 2023. - (ANGELA WEISS / AFP)
Sotheby's auctioneer Benjamin Doller takes bids on the Codex Sassoon in New York City on May 17, 2023. - (ANGELA WEISS / AFP)

JTA — A 1,100-year-old Hebrew Bible that is one of the world’s oldest surviving biblical manuscripts sold for $38 million in New York on Wednesday, becoming among the most expensive books ever bought.

The Codex Sassoon, a leather-bound, handwritten parchment volume containing a nearly complete Hebrew Bible, was purchased by former US Ambassador to Romania Alfred H. Moses on behalf of the American Friends of ANU and donated to ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, where it will join the collection, the Sotheby’s auction house said in statement.

The manuscript is the world’s oldest nearly complete copy of the Hebrew Bible. It was handwritten roughly 1,100 years ago on 792 pages of sheepskin, includes all 24 books of the Bible and is missing only about eight pages. Its writing and layout recall those of Torah scrolls read in synagogue.

The seller, Swiss financier and collector Jacqui Safra, had owned the volume since 1989. Speculation about where the book would end up led to anxiety that it might be sold to a private collector rather than a public institution that could put it on display.

Those doubts were put to rest when the museum, formerly the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, said the book would be part of its core exhibition.

“The Hebrew Bible is the most influential book in history and constitutes the bedrock of Western civilization. I rejoice in knowing it belongs to the Jewish people,” Moses said in a statement. “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.”

The Codex Sassoon is auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York City on May 17, 2023. (ANGELA WEISS / AFP)

Just a handful of buyers competed for the book — in person at Sotheby’s in New York and by phone — and the auction took less than six minutes. Ahead of the auction, Sotheby’s estimated that the item would sell for anywhere from $30 million to $50 million. The “gavel price” was $33.5 million, but with fees and premiums, the final price tag reached $38.1 million.

Since no book or historical document quite like it has been sold at auction for decades, the Codex Sassoon has earned comparisons to other foundational texts of civilization that have also commanded tens of millions of dollars. A copy of the first printing of the US Constitution’s final text sold for $43.2 million in 2021. The Codex Leicester, a journal with writings by Leonardo Da Vinci, fetched $30.8 million in 1994, or around $60 million in today’s dollars. And a copy of the Magna Carta sold for $21.1 million in 2007.

Sotheby’s Judaica specialist Sharon Liberman Mintz said the $38 million price tag “reflects the profound power, influence, and significance of the Hebrew Bible, which is an indispensable pillar of humanity.”

Mintz said she was “absolutely delighted by today’s monumental result and that Codex Sassoon will shortly be making its grand and permanent return to Israel, on display for the world to see.”

A member of staff shows the Codex Sassoon on display during a media preview of Sotheby’s auction, in London, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. (AP/Kin Cheung)

The Codex Sassoon is believed to have been fabricated sometime between 880 and 960.

It got its name in 1929 when it was purchased by David Solomon Sassoon, a son of an Iraqi Jewish business magnate who filled his London home with his collection of Jewish manuscripts.

Sassoon’s estate was broken up after he died and the biblical codex was sold by Sotheby’s in Zurich in 1978 to the British Rail Pension Fund for around $320,000, or $1.4 million in today’s dollars.

The pension fund sold the Codex Sassoon 11 years later to Safra, a banker and art collector, for $3.19 million ($7.7 million in today’s dollars).

“This is one of the rarest, unique, uniting documents that ever existed,” Irina Nevzlin, chair of ANU’s board of directors, told JTA. “For us to have it in the museum where it will be available for all those millions of people — this is something that can strengthen our roots and our identity, because it’s something eternal.”

The Sassoon Codex on display at the  Anu Museum. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The manuscript was exhibited at the ANU Museum in March as part of a worldwide tour before the auction.

“We are the right home for it for so many reasons. Also for the fact that we’re based in Israel,” said Nevzlin.

The in-person auction attracted a standing-room-only crowd of onlookers, many of whom said they felt compelled to witness a transaction of immense significance in Jewish tradition.

“This is a historic moment,” said Elinatan Kupferberg, a scholar and writer from Lakewood, New Jersey. “This is the oldest Torah in existence. Whoever is going to own it next is going to change history.”

Kupferberg, who said his most precious books were those containing the handwritten notes of great rabbis, said he sometimes regrets when Jewish texts are bought by collectors because they will not be used in everyday study. Not so, he said, with this item.

“It doesn’t make me feel sad to see it behind glass because it was meant to be a reference work,” he said.

The ‘Codex Sassoon’ bible is displayed at Sotheby’s in New York on February 15, 2023. (Ed Jones/AFP)

Sandra Gogel, who was in town from Paris, said she had hoped the Codex Sassoon would draw a higher price, and was surprised that bidding had closed so quickly. “33.5 is nothing to scoff at, but 50 would have been nice,” she said.

Gogel said she had traveled to London to see the Codex when it was on display there and was relieved that the book will end up on public display.

“I went to London to see it because I thought I might not see it again,” she said. She added, “I’m happy it will be Israel where everyone can see it… Everyone goes to Tel Aviv.”

JTA’s Philissa Cramer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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