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near-complete Hebrew Bible sold at Sotheby’s for $38.1 million on Wednesday, one of the highest prices for a book or historical document ever sold at auction.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 the Swiss financier and collector Jacqui Safra, and has been seen by few scholars.
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, and was made possible by a donation from Alfred H. 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,” Moses said in a statement. “I rejoice in knowing that it belongs to the Jewish people. It was my mission, realizing 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 But such figures are obtained only rarely for books and historical documents.
For years, the high price at auction was held by the Codex Leicester, a Leonardo da Vinci manuscript bought by Bill Gates in 1994 for $30.8 million ($62.4 million in today’s dollars). Then in November 2021 came a new benchmark: the $43.2 million paid by the investor Ken Griffin for a first printing of the U.S. Constitution.
The Codex Sassoon had last been sold at auction in 1989, for $3.19 million (nearly $8 million in today’s dollars) to a dealer who subsequently sold it to Safra for an unknown price.
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.
The Bible — one of only two complete or substantially complete Hebrew Bibles of the period known to survive — was made in present-day Israel or Syria. It contains what is known as the Masoretic text, after the Masoretes, a lineage of scholar-scribes who lived in Palestine and Babylonia from roughly the sixth to the ninth centuries, and who created systems of annotation to make sure the text would be read and transmitted properly.
The book also includes several inscriptions tracing changes in ownership across the centuries. The earliest is a deed of sale from around 1000 A.D., indicating that it was sold by Khalaf ben Abraham, a businessman who worked in Palestine and Syria, to Isaac ben Ezekiel el-Attar, who ultimately gave it to his sons.
Another inscription notes that almost 200 years later, it was dedicated to the synagogue in the city of Makisin, in northeast Syria. After the synagogue was destroyed, it was entrusted to a man named Salama bin Abi al-Fakhr, who was to return it when the synagogue was rebuilt.
The synagogue was not rebuilt. And what happened to the Bible between then and 1929, when it was purchased by the collector-scholar David Solomon Sassoon, is unclear.
But now, “it’s coming back to Israel, and it’s coming home,” said Irina Nevzlin, chair of the museum’s board, in an interview. “It’s the right place to be.”