Who’s selling treasures from the Valmadonna Trust Library? Depends who you ask
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Monied mystery'The National Library doesn’t need the nicest items'

Who’s selling treasures from the Valmadonna Trust Library? Depends who you ask

Months after the finest and largest private collection of Jewish books was acquired for the National Library of Israel, some of its most valuable selections are up for auction

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Seder Tephiloth mikol HaShanah [prayers for the whole year], according to the Ashkenazic rite with instructions in Yiddish. Printed entirely on vellum in Mantua by Venturino Roffi nello for Meir b. Ephraim and Yaakov b. Naphtali, 1558. (Kestenbaum & Company)
    Seder Tephiloth mikol HaShanah [prayers for the whole year], according to the Ashkenazic rite with instructions in Yiddish. Printed entirely on vellum in Mantua by Venturino Roffi nello for Meir b. Ephraim and Yaakov b. Naphtali, 1558. (Kestenbaum & Company)
  • The front exterior of the planned National Library, with benches and easy access (Courtesy National Library)
    The front exterior of the planned National Library, with benches and easy access (Courtesy National Library)
  • Talmud Bavli. With commentary of Rashi, Tosaphoth, Piskei Tosaphoth,
compendium by Asher b. Jehiel, commentary on the Mishnah by Moses Maimonides, plus index of decisions “Ein Mishpat.” 12 Volumes, entirely complete. Printed in Amsterdam by Immanuel Benveniste, 1644-47 (Kestenbaum & Company)
    Talmud Bavli. With commentary of Rashi, Tosaphoth, Piskei Tosaphoth, compendium by Asher b. Jehiel, commentary on the Mishnah by Moses Maimonides, plus index of decisions “Ein Mishpat.” 12 Volumes, entirely complete. Printed in Amsterdam by Immanuel Benveniste, 1644-47 (Kestenbaum & Company)
  • The three-story reading room planned for the new National Library of Israel, with a massive skylight in the roof (Courtesy The National Library of Israel)
    The three-story reading room planned for the new National Library of Israel, with a massive skylight in the roof (Courtesy The National Library of Israel)
  • A conservation expert repairs a manuscript at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem, October 5, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    A conservation expert repairs a manuscript at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem, October 5, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

On November 9, Kestenbaum & Company in New York will auction off 209 premium selections from the Valmadonna Trust Library, considered the finest and most comprehensive privately held collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world.

Just who is selling off a portion of the Valmadonna Trust Library is a simple question — without a clear answer.

The Valmadonna consists of more than 11,000 printed books and broadsheets, as well as some 300 manuscripts amassed over four decades by the late Jack V. Lunzer, a British industrial diamond merchant and bibliophile. It charts the history of Hebrew printing and reflects the worldwide dissemination of Jewish culture through the printed word. Among its treasures are the largest number of privately held incunabula (books printed before 1501), and precious manuscripts, like a Pentateuch from 1189, the only surviving Hebrew one in England predating the expulsion of the Jews in 1290.

Igereth Orchoth Olam [“Epistle on the Paths of the World”] by Abraham Farissol. First edition of the first Hebrew Americanum), printed in Venice by Giovanni di Gara, 1586-87 (Kestenbaum & Company)
More than 200 of the collection’s extremely valuable books are for sale, yet neither of the Valmadonna’s two owners claim to have put them on the block.

The Valmadonna was jointly acquired in December 2016 by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem and archaeology, books, and Judaica collectors Dr. David and Jemima Jeselsohn in a private transaction with the Valmadonna Trust. Both NLI and the Jeselsohns deny being behind the upcoming auction, with each intimating that it is the other.

In an interview with The Times of Israel at the National Library last week, Judaica collection curator Dr. Yoel Finkelman insisted that NLI is not the source of the items at auction. He said that as of 10 years ago, NLI does not trade, sell, or auction off its holdings.

“NLI has no contractual relationship with the Kestenbaum auction, is not the owner of the books being sold, and is not getting any of the proceeds,” Finkelman said.

NIL had first pick from Lunzer’s collection, ending up with slightly more than 80 percent the books, the entire broadsheet collection, and all of the manuscripts.

“The items in the Kestenbaum auction are ones we already had copies of and weren’t interested in absorbing into our collection. We only took what we were missing,” Finkelman said.

Cover of Hagadah shel Pesach with commentary by R. Joseph of Padua, the first illustrated Venetian Haggadah, printed in Venice by Giovanni di Gara, 1599 (Kestenbaum & Company)

According to Finkelman, NLI aims to acquire one of every Hebrew or Jewish book printed (in all of its editions). A book’s rarity matters to the NLI, but not in the same way that it does to a collector or investor. The same can be said about a book’s beauty (Lunzer had may of his books restored and sumptuously bound by preeminent London bookbinder Bernard Middleton.)

Dr. David Jeselsohn, in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel from his office in Zurich, Switzerland, agreed.

“Jack [Lunzer] liked to have nice copies, but the National Library doesn’t need the nicest items,” Jeselsohn said.

Jeselsohn claimed he took only 50 to 70 of the books remaining after NLI made its selection among the Valmadonna’s thousands of volumes.

Hagadah shel Pesach with commentary by R. Joseph of Padua, the first illustrated Venetian Haggadah, printed in Venice by Giovanni di Gara, 1599 (Kestenbaum & Company)

This would mean that the balance — a couple thousand books — is the source of the 209 items in the Kestenbaum auction.

But to whom do these books belong, and who is going to benefit from their sale?

Jeselsohn confirmed to The Times of Israel that the items are from among the ones that neither he nor NLI wanted to absorb into their collections. However, when asked who chose Kestenbaum to run the auction, Jeselsohn said he wasn’t sure. He also refused to directly answer a question about who would benefit.

“We don’t disclose financial details,” Jeselsohn said.

The sale is against Lunzer’s dying wishes

The upcoming auction is a second blow to the wishes of the Valmadonna’s original custodian. Lunzer wanted his library kept intact, but he died in December 2016 without seeing that vision realized. A year earlier, 12 of the most valuable items in the collection were sold off in a 2015 Sotheby’s auction. 

Sotheby’s originally exhibited the entire Valmadonna Trust Library in New York in 2009, with people queuing for blocks to get in to see it. There was interest from several parties, including the Library of Congress, but the price and the conditions dictated by Lunzer prevented a sale.

The 2015 Sotheby’s auction brought in a total of $14.9 million, making it the most valuable auction of Judaica ever. It featured manuscripts dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries, as well as a flawless copy of a Talmud printed by Daniel Bomberg in Venice in the early 16th century that sold for a record-breaking $9.3 million. (Lunzer had acquired the Talmud, which had been held at Westminster Abbey since the early 17th century, by exchanging it in 1980 for a medieval copy of the charter of Westminster Abbey.)

This reduced the Valmadonna’s overall price, enabling the NLI and the Jeselsohns to acquire it, with plans for showcasing it — as a whole, or in part — in the new NLI complex expected to open in 2020.

The sloping roof and graceful lines of the National Library of Israel’s new, $200 million home (Courtesy The National Library of Israel)

Brad Sabin Hill, former curator of the I. Edward Kiev Judaica Collection at
George Washington University in Washington, DC and an expert on the Valmadonna, found the timing of the current auction curious.

“It surprised me that these items are being peeled off for sale now, and so quickly,” he said.

Indeed, the Valmadonna’s thousands of volumes are still being individually examined and catalogued by NLI staff as they are absorbed into the library’s 2.5-3 million-volume Judaica collection, with some being digitized page by page.

Joshua Gerstein examines and catalogues books from the Valmadonna Trust Library being absorbed into the Nation Library of Israel’s Judaica collection. Jerusalem, October 30, 2017 (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

Joshua Gerstein in the library’s processes department was excited to be handling Valmadonna books not only in Hebrew, but also languages such as Latin, English, Dutch, Italian, Yiddish, Ladino — and even Urdu.

He was moved to come across items such as a 1561 Pentateuch from Trento, Italy, printed less than a century after the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and An Apology for the Honorable Nation of the Jews, and All the Sons of Israel” by Edward Nicholas printed in 1648 which argued for the reinstatement of Jews to England.

“You learn so much about the life and histories of communities through the books they printed,” Gerstein said as he showed this reporter a small book of Lamentations for Tisha B’Av printed in Venice in 1599 with handwritten notes in tiny script throughout.

‘The most learned curator of Hebrew books’

Valmadonna expert Hill first met Lunzer in the early 1980s and visited him and his books many times over the next 35 years. Hill wrote the introduction to the Kestenbaum auction catalogue.

“If one didn’t know he was a diamond merchant it would be impossible to imagine he was anything other than the most learned curator of Hebrew books,” Hill wrote of his friend.

“Obsessive, single-minded and meticulous, he acquired books from every place of printing and every printer. Not only was the totality of Jewish book production represented in the collection, but in unique or nearly unique, flawless, deluxe, variant, excessively rare or altogether unrecorded copies, all elegantly bound or restored,” he wrote.

Talmud Bavli. With commentary of Rashi, Tosaphoth, Piskei Tosaphoth,
compendium by Asher b. Jehiel, commentary on the Mishnah by Moses Maimonides, plus index of decisions “Ein Mishpat.” 12 Volumes, entirely complete. Printed in Amsterdam by Immanuel Benveniste, 1644-47 (Kestenbaum & Company)

Hill pointed out that the choice selection up for sale included books from 40 places of Jewish printing as it spread from Italy to Germany, the Balkans, Krakow, Lublin, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Basle, Paris, and the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.

The sale includes examples from non-Jewish humanist printers such as Bomberg, as well as Jewish printers “whose names resonate of momentous events in Jewish history — of expulsions, book burnings, persecutions and migrations on the one hand, and ennobling moments of technical achievement and intellectual creativity on the other: Eliezer Toledano in Lisbon, generations of Soncinos in Italy and the East, Ibn Nahmias in Constantinople, the Company of Silk Weavers in Bologna, Usque in Ferrara, Dona Reyna in the Belvedere palace near Orta Köy, Manasseh Ben Israel in Amsterdam, and Israel Bak in Jerusalem.”

Sepher Zevach Pesach, with commentary by Isaac Abarbanel. Deluxe copy printed entirely on blue paper. Printed in Cremona by Vincenzo Conti, 1557 (Kestenbaum & Company)

Among the auction’s highlights are incunabula, books printed on velum, books printed on blue and other colored paper, and unica (unique, uniquely complete, or excessively rare copies of early Hebraica).

Kestenbaum & Company chairman Daniel Kestenbaum said he was honored to be handling this auction and expected the Valmadonna provenance to bring a premium.

Like Hill, Kestenbaum also knew Lunzer personally and remembered him for his outgoing character and love of books as both physical objects and purveyors of history and culture.

“When I was living in London, he showed me books. He was very solicitous. I remember he’d speak about 16th century Venice from dinner to midnight,” Kestenbaum said.

Seder Tephilah mikol HaShanah [prayers through the year]. According to Sephardic custom. Deluxe copy printed on red-rose paper in Vienna by Anton Schmid, 1838 (Kestenbaum & Company)
“He was self-taught. Not only did he house the Valmadonna in his home, but he also had a separate library in one room where he kept a huge collection of secondary reading and bibliographies,” he said.

The complete reference library of the Valmadonna Trust Library, containing some 2,000 titles, is up for auction, and will likely be of interest to university and national libraries.

Kestenbaum pointed out other highlight lots, which could draw the attention of both institutional and private buyers. One is “Igereth Orchoth Olam” [Epistle on the Paths of the World] by Abraham Farissol, printed in Venice by Giovanni di Gara in1586-87 and estimated at $50,000 -$70,000. It is the first edition of the earliest Hebrew work containing a description of America.

A first edition of “Sepher Mayan Ganim – Sepher Eilim – Mayan Chathum” by Joseph Solomon of Crete Delmedigo printed by Menasseh ben Israel in Amsterdam in 1628-29 includes treatises relating to geometry, algebra, chemistry, astronomy, physics, medicine and metaphysics, and is unique in Hebrew literature before the modern period. It is estimated at $10,000-$15,000.

Sepher Mayan Ganim – Sepher Eilim – Mayan Chathum by Joseph Solomon of Crete Delmedigo (first edition), printed in Amsterdam by Menasseh ben Israel, 1628-29 (Kestenbaum & Company)

A Passover Haggadah with commentary by Rabbi Joseph of Padua printed in Venice by Giovanni di Gara in 1599, the first illustrated Venetian haggadah, is estimated at $10,000-15,000; and a complete Ashkenazic Siddur printed in Mantua by Venturino Roffi Nello for Meir ben Ephraim and Yaakov ben Naphtali in 1558 is expected to go for $80,000-$120,000.

Hill was surprised to find a book printed in Prague in 1735 on extremely rare blue-green paper from the library of Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschuetz, a revered rabbi suspected of being a Sabbatean, among those to be auctioned.

“I can’t imagine how NLI could be giving this up knowingly. It’s like having a deluxe copy of a book that was signed by Thomas Jefferson,” Hill said.

Kestenbaum said he wasn’t in the position to say why this and the other books were coming to auction. His role was merely to represent the consignors.

And who are they?

“A partnership between the National Library of Israel and David and Jemima Jeselsohn,” he said.

Watch a short film made by Sotheby’s about the Valmadonna Trust Library:

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