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Oldest Nearly Complete Hebrew Bible Estimated to Sell at Sotheby’s Auction for $30M-$50M

BY KAREN K. HO Senior Writer, ARTnews

February 15, 2023

Sotheby’s will auction off the oldest surviving, nearly complete Hebrew Bible, known as the Codex Sassoon, the auction house announced Wednesday. The 1,100-year old volume carries an estimate of $30 million to $50 million, which could make it the most valuable historical document ever sold at auction.

The Codex is named after businessman, philanthropist and Judaica collector David Solomon Sassoon, who once owned the item. According to Sotheby’s, it predates the earliest entirely complete Hebrew Bible, the Leningrad Codex, by nearly a century. While the Aleppo Codex at the Israel Museum is older than the Codex Sassoon, almost two-fifths of its pages are missing.

“Codex Sassoon has long held a revered and fabled place in the pantheon of surviving historic documents and is undeniably one of the most important and singular texts in human history,” Sotheby’s Global Head of Books & Manuscripts Richard Austin said in a statement. “With such eminence, the Codex has an incomparable presence and gravitas that can only be borne from more than one thousand years of history.”

The Codex Sassoon has Masoretic notes from early Middle Age scholars on how words in the Hebrew Bible’s twenty-four books should be spelled, read and accented. The Codex Sassoon also contains more than a millennium of annotations, transcriptions, commentary, and ownership records. Sotheby’s said the latter provides even greater detail on how Abrahamic religions developed and spread across the ancient Levant area in the Middle Ages.

To calculate the price estimate of the Codex Sassoon, Austin told the New York Times a committee started discussing the number two years ago. It took into consideration the production cost of more than 100 animal skins, the careful calligraphy of a single writer, and its monumental historical value. It also looked at the two previous record-breaking sales of historic documents: the Codex Leicester, a Leonardo da Vinci manuscript bought by Bill Gates in 1994 for $30.8 million. Billionaire and Top 200 art collector Ken Griffin smashed that in November 2021 when he paid $43.2 million for a first printing of the US Constitution.

The current owner of the Codex Sassoon is Jacob (Jacqui) Safra, heir of a Syrian Lebanese-Swiss banking fortune. In January, Safra sold two paintings by the Italian 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi through an Old Masters auction at Sotheby’s New York.

The last time the Codex Sassoon was publicly exhibited was in 1982 at the British Museum. But, Sotheby’s will soon take the Codex Sassoon on tour to London, the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, as well as Dallas, Los Angeles and New York.

The live auction of the object will take place at Sotheby’s the morning of May 16.

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