+ A Lifetime’s Collection of Hebrew Texts on Sale

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Thirteen thousand books and manuscripts collected by one man, Jack V. Lunzer, are on sale at Sotheby’s.

Lunzer, born in Antwerp in 1924,  lives in London and made his fortune as a merchant of industrial diamonds. 

According to Edward Rothstein’s  NY Times article, Sotheby’s 2400-square-foot-opening gallery is lined with shelves — 10 high — reaching to the ceiling.  The items are not packed tight, and occasional books are open to view.  Each shelf is labeled, not with a subject, but with a city or town of origin: Amsterdam, Paris, Leiden, Izmir, Bombay, Cochin, Cremona, Jerusalem, Calcutta, Ferrara, Mantua, Shanghai, Alexandria, Baghdad.  And on and on.  

You can’t read these books, or take them from the shelves.  A few volumes are open in adjoining rooms, however, for closer scrutiny.

The geographical scale is astounding, but so is the temporal breadth — over 1,000 years.  Historical gaps and boundaries testify to periods of decline or terrible loss, when entire communities were exiled or massacred, and precious books were sent to public conflagration.

These are all books written in Hebrew, using Hebrew script.  Many are rare, or even unique.  Many come from the earliest centuries of Hebrew printing; they map out a history of the flourishing of Jewish communities world wide.

The collection is named the Valmadonna Trust Library, after the Italian town with which Mr Lunzer’s family has long been associated.   It has been put on sale by Sotheby’s as a single collection. It is being displayed to the public through February 19th, 2009.  

Sotheby’s is trying to lure large institutional libraries and collectors who might be prepared to pay at least $40 million for what has been described as “the finest private library of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world.”


Included in the collection is a Hebrew Bible handwritten in England in 1189; it is the only dated Hebrew text from England before King Edward I expelled the Jews in 1290.  In 1190, the Jewish community of York was massacred, and its property, including many books and manuscripts, was looted and sold abroad, where this volume was discovered.

Also to be found is an exquisitely preserved edition of the Babylonian Talmud (1519-23) made by the Christian printer Daniel Bomberg in Venice.  This edition was created with the advice of a panel of scholars that codified many aspects of how the Talmud is displayed and printed. 

The set eventually made its way into the collection of Westminster Abbey; Mr Lunzer found it there, covered with dust, and ultimately acquired it in a trade, offering a 900-year-old copy of the Abbey’s original Charter.

There’s also a 12th-century scroll of the Hebrew Pentateuch that came from the Samaritans, a Jewish sect still to be found in Nablus on the West Bank.  Their ancient Hebrew script resembles inscriptions on archaeological finds rather than the letters that came to define mainstream Hebrew.

And there are manuscripts of great variety: a 19th-century copy of “A Thousand and One Nights” from Calcutta with its Arabic spelled out in Hebrew script; the first scientific work printed in Portugal in 1496 by Abraham Zacuto, a Jewish astrologer and mathematician; an early-20th-century manuscript from Pakistan with Hebrew and Marathi on facing pages — a guide for ritual slaughterers.

One gallery is inscribed with an amazing blessing written by a Jewish scholar from 16th-century Prague, David Gans:

“Blessed be He… Who has magnified His grace with a great invention, one that is useful for all inhabitants of the world, there is none beside it, and nothing can equal it among all wisdoms and inventions since God created man on the earth: The Printing Press.” 

We know the printing press was a German invention.  Its first use  was the printing of a Bible by Johannes Gutenberg.  But Jews were not allowed into German printing guilds, so they flourished in Italy, beginning in Rome in 1470 and then in other towns where licenses to publish Hebrew books were granted and revoked on the whim of local rulers.

In Cremona,  Hebrew printing lasted only about 10 years until the 1560s.  Every one of the Hebrew books printed there in that era is represented here, according to Mr Lunzer.

In some places, Jews were pioneers in the use of the printing press.  We’re told that the first book ever printed in Turkey is here, a 1493 copy of Jacob ben Asher’s code of Jewish law, “Arba’ah Turim.” 

Also here is the first book ever printed in Africa — a Hebrew book about prayer from 1516 Fez.  And there is a polyglot Pentateuch (1547), from Constantinople, its Spanish and Greek translations written using Hebrew script, testifying  to these migrations. 

The institution that purchases this collection will acquire a resource that would now be impossible to buy piece by piece.  And the rarity of the assemblage is even more remarkable given the traumatic history of each piece. 

For example, the Talmud alone has been subject to the most extreme purges.  These legal texts were confiscated in Paris in 1240 and in Germany in 1509; they were burned in Italy by Papal decree in 1553.  In Venice one observer saw more than 1,000 complete copies go up in flames.

Other Hebrew books were also systematically destroyed.   A few in Italy were permitted to survive if  “blasphemous” passages were excised.  One of these expurgated volumes is displayed at Sotheby’s.

“They’re my friends,” says Lunzer.  “Each one I have held in my hands.”  He’ll miss them, but will be happy if they are well kept and respected.

And remember, he says, each one could only be printed because of permission granted by others.  “Every one of these books is crying its own tears.”

source: Edward Rothstein’s article in the NY Times on 2/12/09.  The exhibition of the Valmadonna Trust Library is on view through February 19, 2009, at Sotheby’s in New York City.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email   aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


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