The oldest nearly complete Hebrew Bible sold Wednesday at Sotheby’s for $38.1 million, one of the highest prices for a book or historical document ever sold at auction.
The book, known as the Codex Sassoon, contains all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible minus about eight pages, including the first 10 chapters of Genesis. Researchers have dated it to the late 9th or early 10th century, making it the oldest nearly complete Hebrew Bible in existence. Since 1989 it has been owned by Swiss financier and collector Jacqui Safra and has been seen by few scholars.
Speculation had raged for months as to who might have the desire—and deep pockets—to acquire the Bible, which was estimated to be worth $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, made possible by a donation from Alfred H. Moses, a former ambassador to Romania, and his family. The Codex Sassoon is donated to the museum (formerly known as the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora) and is part of the core exhibit.
“The Hebrew Bible is the most influential in history and is the foundation of Western civilization,” Moses said in a statement. “I am happy to know that it belongs to the Jewish people. It was my mission, to realize the historical significance of Codex Sassoon, to see it located in a place with worldwide access for all people.
The $38.1 million price tag, including buyer fees, may seem like a relative pittance compared to the stratospheric prices regularly reached at high-profile art auctions. But such figures are rarely obtained for books and historical documents.
For years, the highest auction price was held by the Codex Leicester, a manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci that was purchased by Bill Gates in 1994 for $30.8 million ($62.4 million in today’s dollars). Then came a new benchmark in November 2021: the $43.2 million investor Ken Griffin paid for a first printing of the US Constitution.
The Codex Sassoon was last sold at auction in 1989, for $3.19 million (almost $8 million in today’s dollars) to a dealer who then sold it to Safra for an unknown price.
Even in its own day, the book was an expensive object, requiring the skins of easily over 100 animals to make the 400 or so parchment leaves. The text was written by a single writer.
“It’s a masterpiece of writing,” Sharon Liberman Mintz, Sotheby’s senior consultant for Judaica, told DailyExpertNews in February.
It is also a slightly worn specimen, characterized by stains and small tears, which have been carefully repaired with thread or sinew. But the text remains remarkably legible, written in square letters similar to those found on Torah scrolls in synagogues around the world today.
The Bible—one of only two complete or nearly complete Hebrew Bibles from the period known to have survived—was made in present-day Israel or Syria. It contains what is known as the Masoretic Text, after the Masoretes, a lineage of learned scribes who lived in Palestine and Babylonia from about the sixth to ninth centuries, who created systems of annotation to ensure that the text would be read and read . correctly transferred.
The book also contains several inscriptions that track changes in ownership over the centuries. The earliest is a deed of sale from around AD 1000.
Another inscription records that it was dedicated almost 200 years later at the synagogue in the city of Makisin, northeastern Syria. After the synagogue was destroyed, it was entrusted to a man named Salama bin Abi al-Fakhr, who would 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 collector-scholar David Solomon Sassoon, is unclear.
But now “it’s coming back to Israel and coming home,” Irina Nevzlin, chairman of the museum’s board of directors, said in an interview. “It’s the right place to be.”