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Earliest Hebrew Bible sells for $38 million in New York

19 May 2023

SOTHEBY’S

Codex Sassoon: the earliest most complete Hebrew Bible, c.900

Codex Sassoon: the earliest most complete Hebrew Bible, c.900

WHAT is believed to be the earliest and most complete Hebrew Bible has been bought for $38.1 million and donated to a museum in Israel.

The Codex Sassoon was written by a single unknown scribe in the Levant, sometime between AD 880 and AD 960, but vanished for 600 years before re- emerging in the 20th century.

On Wednesday, in Sotheby’s auction rooms in New York, it was bought by the former United States ambassador and presidential adviser, Alfred H. Moses, on behalf of the American Friends of ANU, the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv.

The hammer price was near the lower end of the auctioneers’ estimate of between $30 million and $50 million, but it makes the Bible one of the most expensive rare books and manuscripts ever sold: somewhere between the $30.8 million Bill Gates paid, in 1994, for Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester; and the $43.2 million paid for a first printing of the US Constitution, by Ken Griffin, the founder of the US hedge fund Citadel, in 2021.

In a statement, Mr Moses said: “It was my mission, realising the historic significance of Codex Sassoon, to see that it resides in a place with global access to all people. It will be preserved for generations to come as the centrepiece and gem of the entire and extensive display and presence of the Jewish story.”

The manuscript, written on 792 sheepskin pages, each 12 by 14 inches, is enclosed in a 20th-century brown leather binding. It includes all 24 books of the Bible, and is missing only about eight pages. It has been shown publicly only once before: at the British Museum, in 1982. Biblical scholars see it as a link from early fragments of biblical parchment, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, to the first medieval transcriptions.

It is named after a previous owner, David Solomon Sassoon, who acquired the Bible for £350 in 1929, for his private collection of Judaica and Hebraica manuscripts. For a brief period in the 1980s, it was owned by the British Rail pension fund, which sold it in 1989 for $2.5 million to the current seller, the Swiss financier and collector Jacqui Safra.

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