Rare 16th century Talmud fetches $9.3 million in NY auction

A manuscript Pentateuch known as the Codex Valmadonna, the only dated Hebrew text surviving from medieval England was sold for $3.6 million.

December 23, 2015 20:33
1 minute read.
THE EXTREMELY rare 16th-century Babylonian Talmud.

THE EXTREMELY rare 16th-century Babylonian Talmud.. (photo credit: COURTESY SOTHEBY’S)

A complete set of the Babylonian Talmud, printed in Venice by Daniel Bomberg in the early 16th century, was sold for a record-breaking $9.3 million at Sotheby’s in New York on Tuesday. Perhaps the finest of the 14 sets known to exist, it came from the British-based Valmadonna Trust Library, formed by London bibliophile and diamond merchant Jack Lunzer, and was bought by Stephan Loewentheil, of the 19th Century Rare Book & Photograph Shop in Brooklyn, NY.

The sale of 12 items from the collection – the first at Sotheby’s in an ongoing series spanning the entire library – realized a total of $14.86m., including buyer’s premium.

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While attending an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 1956 marking 300 years of Jewish resettlement in England, Lunzer learned of the set, housed for centuries in the library of Westminster Abbey. Vowing somehow to acquire it, he eventually did so in 1980, amid suggestions – since disputed – that the volumes were used by Henry VIII to assist him in justifying his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

Lunzer had seized his opportunity when an original copy of the Abbey’s 900-year-old charter, bearing the great seal of Edward the Confessor, was sold at Sotheby’s in London to an American antiquarian dealer. The government, however, refused to grant the export license necessary for items of great historical value to leave Britain, and Lunzer offered to purchase the charter for the Abbey (with additional endowments). His offer was accepted and, in return, the Abbey authorities agreed to present the Talmud to the Valmadonna Trust.

Another highlight in the sale, fetching $3.6m., was a manuscript Pentateuch known as the Codex Valmadonna, the only dated Hebrew text surviving from medieval England.

Written during the summer of 1189, it was completed just two months before London’s Jewish community was decimated during riots coinciding with the coronation of Richard I, and a century before Edward I’s edict expelling the Jews.

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