Monied mystery'The Hebrew book market received a wonderful boost'

Valmadonna Trust Library auction in NY brings record sales. But who benefits?

Private sale of Jewish books sees lots reaching far beyond their estimated values, including the trust’s complete reference and bibliographic library for $190,000

Illustrative: A 12-volume set of Babylonian Talmud with commentaries, printed in Amsterdam by Immanuel Benveniste, 1644-47 (Kestenbaum & Company)
Illustrative: A 12-volume set of Babylonian Talmud with commentaries, printed in Amsterdam by Immanuel Benveniste, 1644-47 (Kestenbaum & Company)

It is a mystery who benefitted from the proceeds earned at the November 9 private sale of 209 rare items from the esteemed Valmadonna Trust Library. But as the hammer struck on the final lot — sold for almost four times its estimate at $190,000 in an auction held at New York-based Kestenbaum & Company — the anonymous benefactor was doubtless pleased with the results.

Amassed over four decades by the late Jack V. Lunzer, the Valmadonna Library consists of more than 11,000 printed books and broadsheets, as well as some 300 manuscripts. Lunzer, a British industrial diamond merchant and bibliophile, charted the history of Hebrew printing through his collection, which reflects the worldwide dissemination of Jewish culture through the printed word.

This Babylonian Talmud was sold at $90,000 at the November 9, 2017 Valmadonna Library auction. Immanuel Benveniste, Amsterdam: 1644-47. (Courtesy of Kestenbaum)

After Lunzer’s death in December 2016, the Valmadonna was jointly acquired by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem and Dr. David and Jemima Jeselsohn, collectors of archaeology, books and Judaica, in a private transaction with the Valmadonna Trust.

As explored in an in-depth Times of Israel article earlier this week, both NLI and the Jeselsohns deny being behind the November 9 auction, with each intimating that it is the other.

Thursday’s auction saw lots sold starting at $400 for a 1564 printing of a Latin translation of an early Hebrew dictionary “Sepher HaShorashim,” to a high of $190,000 for the complete reference and bibliographic library of the Valmadonna Trust, a compendium of some 2,000 titles.

“The Hebrew book market received a wonderful boost of energy this evening as the 209 lots sold at auction by Kestenbaum & Company from the Valmadonna Trust Library found many new homes with many delighted private collectors and institutional libraries across the globe,” Daniel Kestenbaum told The Times of Israel following the sale.

“Extraordinary prices were achieved with 96% of the lots sold, often at many multiples of their pre-auction estimated prices,” said Kestenbaum.

Sold at $72,500, in the November 9, 2017 Valmadonna Library auction was a first edition Machzor prayer book, written according to Roman rite. Soncino, Soncino-Casal Maggiore: 1485-6. (Courtesy Kestenbaum)

The jewel of the crown, the reference library, is one such example. Estimated for sale at $50,000-70,000, it was not on exhibit prior to the sale and could only be resourced upon request. According to its description at the Kestenbaum website, “It comprises a wealth of books and offprints dealing with Hebrew incunables, printing, typography, codicology, manuscript illumination, Jewish art and the art of the book, library history, archives, private collections, and every other area of Judaic bibliography.”

According to a summary prepared by rare book expert Dr. Brad Sabin Hill, who knew and admired Lunzer for over 35 years, “The collection encompasses the broad spectrum of Hebrew and Judaic bibliographic scholarship of the 19th and 20th centuries, works principally in German, Hebrew, English, Italian and French, the whole in uncommonly clean copies and often nicely bound or rebound.”

The November 9, 2017 Valmadonna Library auction saw the sale at $80,000 for this 1558 Seder Tephiloth mikol HaShanah prayer book. (Courtesy Kestenbaum)

Additional high-ticket items include the first Dutch printing of the Babylonian Talmud by Immanuel Benveniste, which sold for $90,000. According to the Kestenbaum catalogue, “Benveniste did not print his Talmud in chronological order, but produced most tractates as individual books with separate title page and foliation so that they could be sold individually — hence a uniform and complete set is uncommon.”

Another sale of note is the $72,500 realization for the first known printed Hebrew prayer book, the Soncino Machzor. Printed in Italy according to the “Roman rite” in 1485-6, it was estimated at $50,000-60,000. According to the Kestenbaum catalogue, it is rich in religious poetry, or piyutim, in addition to the normative prayer. According to the Wineman Catalogue, “This magnificent incunable is one of Soncino’s most outstanding productions. It is the first book fully vocalized and with woodcut headings all the way through the text. It is the only book printed in Casal Maggiore and took an entire year to print due to the complexity of the contents.”

Speculation about who is the beneficent of the auction continues, with a tight-lipped Kestenbaum stating his role was merely to represent the consignors, whom he named as “a partnership between the National Library of Israel and David and Jemima Jeselsohn.”

Renee Ghert-Zand contributed to this report.

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