The Codex Sassoon, a leather-bound, handwritten parchment tome containing nearly the entire Hebrew Bible, will be auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York in May.
Its early sale speaks to the still bull market for art, antiques and ancient manuscripts, even in a bearish world economy.
Sotheby’s is raising interest in the hope of luring institutions and collectors to bite. He has put the price tag at a whopping $30 million to $50 million (£40.7 million).
On Wednesday, the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv opened a week-long exhibition of the manuscript, part of a whirlwind world tour of the artifact to the United Kingdom, Israel and the United States ahead of its long-awaited sale.
“There are three ancient Hebrew Bibles from this period,” said Yosef Ofer, a professor of biblical studies at Israel’s Bar Ilan University: the 10th-century Sassoon Codex and Aleppo Codex, and the early 11th-century Leningrad Codex. .
Only the Dead Sea Scrolls and a handful of fragmentary early medieval texts are older, and “a complete Hebrew Bible is relatively rare,” he said.
Beginning a few centuries before the creation of the Codex Sassoon, Jewish scholars known as Masoretes began to codify oral traditions on how to correctly spell, pronounce, punctuate, and chant the words of Judaism’s most sacred book.
Unlike the Torah scrolls, where the Hebrew letters lack vowels and punctuation, these manuscripts contained extensive notations instructing readers on how to recite the words correctly.
Precisely where and when the Codex Sassoon was made remains uncertain.
Sharon Liberman Mintz, a senior Judaica specialist at Sotheby’s, said radiocarbon dating of the scroll gave an estimated date of 880 to 960. The codex’s writing style suggests its creator was an unspecified scribe from early 10th century Egypt. or the Levant.
“It’s like the rise of the biblical text as we know it today,” Ms. Mintz said. “It’s so fundamental not only to Judaism, but also to world culture.”
While certainly ancient and rare, scholars say the Sassoon Codex does not match the pedigree and quality of its contemporary: the Aleppo Codex.
“Any sane Masoretic scholar would prefer the Aleppo Codex to the Sassoon Codex, without regret or hesitation,” said Kim Phillips, a bible expert at Cambridge University Library. She said that the quality of the scribe was “shockingly sloppy” compared to his counterpart.
The Aleppo Codex, dated to around 930, has been considered the gold standard of Masoretic Bibles for around 1,000 years. The margins of the Codex Sassoon contain a notation by a later scholar who says that he compared his text with the Aleppo Codex.
These venerable manuscripts were protected and treasured by Syrian Jewish communities for centuries up to the 20th century. How the Sassoon Codex survived the centuries is an epic in its own right.
A note in the manuscript attests to its owners in centuries past: a man named Khalaf ben Abraham gave it to Isaac ben Ezekiel al-Attar, who gave it to his sons Ezekiel and Maimon.
It later migrated east to the town of Makisin in what is now northeastern Syria, where it was dedicated to a synagogue in the 13th century. Sometime in the following decades, the synagogue was destroyed and the codex entrusted to Salama ibn Abi al-Fakhr until the synagogue was rebuilt.
It was never rebuilt, but the book survived.
Its whereabouts for the next 500 years remained uncertain until it reappeared in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1929, and was bought by a legendary collector of Jewish manuscripts whose name it still bears.
David Solomon Sassoon was born in Bombay, the son of an Iraqi Jewish business magnate who filled his London home with a huge collection of Jewish manuscripts.
“Her capacity was amazing, both in terms of numbers and what she was able to find,” said Raquel Ukeles, head of collections at the National Library of Israel.
Sassoon traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa buying old books, and by his death in 1942, he had amassed more than 1,200 manuscripts.
His estate was divided after his death, and the codex was sold by Sotheby’s in Zurich in 1978 to the British Rail Pension Fund, which had begun investing in art several years earlier, for around $320,000.
The pension fund traded the Codex Sassoon 11 years later for 10 times its hammer price. Jacqui Safra, a banker and art collector, bought it in 1989 for $3.19 million and is now putting it up for auction.