The oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible sold at Sotheby’s for $38.1 million on Wednesday, one of the highest prices for a book or historical document ever sold at auction.
The volume, known as the Codex Sassoon, includes all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, minus about eight leaves, including the first 10 chapters of Genesis. Researchers have dated it to the late ninth or early 10th century, making it the oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible known to exist. Since 1989, it has been owned by Swiss financier and collector Jacqui Safra, and has been seen by few scholars.
Mr Safra (83) has strong ties to Ireland through the Parknasilla hotel and Rossdohan Island in Co Kerry, which he co-owns alongside businessman Tony Daly. The billionaire made his first purchase in southern Ireland when buying Garnish Island in Co Cork in the 1990s, before adding the Parknasilla hotel and Rossdohan Island to his portfolio in 2012 and 2020 respectively.
Safra lives in Switzerland but spends a number of weeks each year in Co Kerry. He keeps a very low profile when in the county and is said to use the name JE Beaucaire locally, a name adopted from cameo film roles in earlier life, including in Woody Allen’s Radio Days.
Speculation had percolated for months over who might have the desire — and deep pockets — to acquire the Bible, which carried an estimate of $30 million to $50 million.
Shortly after the auction, Sotheby’s announced that the buyer was the American Friends of ANU — Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, Israel, and was made possible by a donation from Alfred Moses, a former ambassador to Romania, and his family. The Codex Sassoon will be donated to the museum (previously known as the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora) and be part of the core exhibition.
“The Hebrew Bible is the most influential in history and constitutes the bedrock of western Civilization,” Mr Moses said in a statement. “I rejoice in knowing that it belongs to the Jewish people. It was my mission, realising the historic significance of Codex Sassoon, to see it resides in a place with global access to all people.”
The price tag of $38.1 million, including buyer’s fees, may seem like a relative pittance compared with the stratospheric prices reached regularly at high-profile art auctions. But such figures are obtained only rarely for books and historical documents.
Even in its own time, the book was an expensive object, requiring the skins of easily more than 100 animals to create its roughly 400 parchment leaves. The text was written by a single scribe.
“It’s a masterpiece of scribal art,” Sharon Liberman Mintz, Sotheby’s senior consultant for Judaica, told The New York Times in February.
It’s also a slightly worn one, marked by stains and small tears, which have been carefully mended with thread or sinew. But the text remains remarkably legible, written out in the square letters similar to those on Torah scrolls in synagogues around the world today.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.