Medieval Jewish prayer book sells for almost $ 8.3 million

A 700-year-old German Jewish prayer book, offered for sale by a French Jewish organization to shore up its finances, was auctioned Tuesday for $ 8.3 million.

Known as the Luzzatto High Holiday Mahzor, the prayer book easily topped the Sotheby’s New York auction house’s pre-sale estimate of $ 4-6 million as four bidders clashed for five minutes. dramatic.

The object, which was sold to an anonymous private buyer, is from the collection of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a 160-year-old French Jewish organization that operates schools in Israel, France and Morocco.

Only one Judaica object sold more at auction: the Bomberg Talmud from the Valmadonna collection, which sold for $ 9.3 million in 2015.

An artefact from medieval Germany that then circulated among various Jewish communities in Europe, the Luzzatto Mahzor is handwritten in Hebrew and features colorful illustrations of human bodies with animal heads.

“In my 26 years at Sotheby’s, I have dealt with many rare and interesting books,” said Sharon Mintz, the auction house’s senior consultant for Judaica, in a video presentation. “However, I never had the opportunity to sell an illustrated medieval Hebrew prayer book and I would be surprised if I had this opportunity again. It is such a rare manuscript.

The sale offers another sign of the evolution of the rare Judaica market in recent years, in line with the overall collectibles market.

But the transfer of the book from a library to private hands also indicates the increasingly precarious state of certain public Judaic collections in the service of the Jewish community.

In French media interviews, representatives of the Alliance said their organization, which runs a large Jewish library in Paris as well as many Jewish schools, is facing an economic crisis.

“The sale is the only solution that will guarantee the survival of the organization’s library until 2030,” Marc Eisenberg and Roger Cukierman told French media Actualité Juive. The money raised from the auction will be used to fund scholarships, programs for children with special needs and investments in digital education, according to a statement released by Alliance.

Efforts had been made to prevent the sale from taking place, with some calling on the French government to invoke a law declaring the prayer book a national treasure.

Disclosure of the sale and the reason for it contrasts with recent revelations that the famous Jewish Theological Seminary library has quietly sold assets to raise funds in recent years.

The Luzzatto Mahzor’s winning bidder has not been publicly named, but few clues are available, leading Judaica experts to speculate on the person’s identity.

Sotheby’s said the item went to a “renowned American collector, who has one of the largest collections of medieval Hebrew manuscripts in the world.”

The auctioneer inspects the lot at the next auction

In an email to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, Mintz, Sotheby’s adviser, gave one more clue.

“I would add to this that the buyer is known to be very generous in sharing his manuscripts with the public – they have participated in many public exhibitions and the buyer also gives access to researchers,” she said. writing.

Ironically, the sale to a private collector could end up increasing public interest and engagement in the prayer book.

According to Mintz, very few people knew of its existence before the auction, and those who did know could only examine it in the physical setting of the library. In preparation for the auction, the prayer book has been professionally scanned and reproduced online.

“I am fairly certain that as a result of our research, cataloging and photographs, a much larger group of people than ever before now know of its existence and significance,” Mintz wrote. “If they want to study it, they are now able to do so 24/7 thanks to the full digital images. “

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