Chronology : 1-1000 14th century 15th century 1400-1429 1430-1459 1460-1479 1500-1519 1530-1539 1640-1649
3rd century BCE to 1st century CE - first discovery 1946
Dead Sea Scrolls
Israel Museum in Jerusalem and Jordan Museum in Amman
900 CE Hebrew Bible with Masorah
2023 SOLD for $ 38M by Sotheby's
One of the earliest surviving Bibles remains nearly complete in all its three parts : Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings. Its Hebrew text is as the Jews are still using it in current days.
Already exceptional in its time, it was written around 900 CE by a single scribe on 400 30 x 36 cm parchment leaves that had required about 200 sheepskins. This manuscript includes punctuations and vowels for a better readability.
It was assembled as a codex, an antique technique recently forwarded to the Jews through the Muslims, much easier to use than a scroll, by which sheets inscribed with text in both sides were folded and sewn together.
Precise instructions on how to recite and understand it, known as the Masorah, were added in the margins. The Masoretic Bibles were used as references and not for liturgy and are extremely rare. Due to Rabbinic rules no similar system applied in the scrolls. The Masoretes were scholars-scribes who were also entrusted to maintain the text of the Bible unchanged throughout the generations.
Used for private worship in its first centuries, it was donated in the 13th century CE to a synagogue in Makisin, a town in Syria that was soon destroyed during the Mongol or Timurid invasions. Out of view after that event, the codex resurfaced as a time capsule in 1929, acquired in Frankfurt through a librarian by the scholar David Sassoon who was assembling the largest and most important private collection of Hebrew manuscripts in the world.
Remaining in private hands, it was sold for $ 38M from a lower estimate of $ 30M by Sotheby's on May 17, 2023, lot 1. This historical document weighs 11.8 Kg. It had been rebound by Sassoon. Only about 12 folios are missing.
A similar example is the Aleppo Codex prepared ca 930 CE, of which nearly 40 % of the pages were lost in the 1950s.
In a historic standalone auction today, the Codex Sassoon—the earliest and most complete Hebrew Bible—sold for $38.1 million during Marquee Week at #SothebysNewYork. #AuctionUpdate pic.twitter.com/Dj3wxLpekf— Sotheby's (@Sothebys) May 17, 2023
Buddy, can you spare $50 million??— Jennifer Schuessler (@jennyschuessler) February 15, 2023
I got an exclusive peak at the Codex Sassoon, the oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible, to be auctioned at Sotheby's in May.
Created c 900 AD, lost until 1929, since then in private hands. (Yes, I touched it! Magical) https://t.co/jieAMx6JX0
Jusqu’à 50 millions de dollars : la plus vieille bible hébraïque aux enchères https://t.co/RHDDHfOU4C via @LePoint— Sotheby's France (@SothebysFr) February 17, 2023
Coming to auction this May is one of the most impressive artifacts of human history and culture: The Codex Sassoon Hebrew Bible.— Sotheby's (@Sothebys) February 15, 2023
Over 1,000 years old, the bible puts an end to the great “silent period,” during which virtually no Hebrew literature survives. pic.twitter.com/DoKWEi2cXo
1188 The Gospels of Henry the Lion
1983 SOLD for £ 8.1M including premium by Sotheby's
narrated in 2020
Henry was a benefactor of Brunswick Cathedral, which he had built from 1173 and where he is buried. His gospel book is a very luxurious manuscript prepared for the consecration of the altar of the Virgin Mary in 1188 in that cathedral.
This book is a codex of 266 sheets of parchment 34 x 25 cm, including 50 full-page illustrations as well as historiated initials. It shows in a logical sequence the career of the duke protected by Christ and the saints, including for example his wedding and his coronation. Phylactery explanations complement the images, making it possible to identify the highly important imperial and ducal characters of his family.
The work was prepared at the Benedictine Abbey in Helmarshausen and the scribe identified his name. The script is a modified Caroline minuscule that anticipates the Gothic. The illustrations in bright colors are composed on the principle of the rejection of blank (horror vacui) while keeping a great readability. The image shared by Wikimedia gives the example of a page.
This masterpiece of the Romanesque illumination has remained intact. It was sold on December 6, 1983 by Sotheby's for £ 8.1M including premium, an all-categories record at that time for an artwork at auction. Considered in Germany as a national treasure, it was bought at that sale by a consortium including the government, the provinces of Lower Saxony and Bavaria and public and private donors.
around 1300 Western Ashkenazic Mahzor
2021 SOLD for $ 8.3M by Sotheby's
This thick book of 451 equalized folios 31 x 24 cm was prepared in parchment in current day Bavaria by a scribe artist who identified himself as 'Abraham' in several places. It is highly rare that such a manuscript was illustrated by a Jew at a time when the best pigments were not provided to them by the Christian illuminators.
No date is inscribed. Its terminus post quem is determined as 1264 CE after a paleographic comparison with Ashkenazic codices. The terminus ante quem is slightly after 1300 CE by the use of a lead point, a precursor to the graphite pencil.
It is illustrated with multiple small figures in bright colors featuring praying Jews. A few of them have animal heads for complying with an Ashkenazic prohibition of portrait images.
It was later cleanly annotated in margins with additional prayers by its owners, providing a unique view of the rituals subsequently in Franconia, Alsace, Constance, Northern Italy and France. As an example it includes from Constance a prayer against the anti-Jewish violence during the Black Death.
The Luzzatto Mahzor is in an exceptionally fine condition. It was sold for $ 8.3M from a lower estimate of $ 4M by Sotheby's on October 19, 2021, lot 1. The Alliance Israélite Universelle is selling it to fund its educational mission. Please watch the video shared by the auction house.
Medieval Hebrew prayer book expected to fetch up to $6m at auction https://t.co/kM1Y5OECDY— Guardian culture (@guardianculture) September 2, 2021
Yuan Dynasty - Heart Sutra by Zhao Mengfu
2017 SOLD for RMB 190M including premium by Poly
narrated in 2020
Active after the fall of the Song in 1279 CE, Zhao Mengfu is a prince-artist who belongs to the fallen dynasty. Poet, jurist, painter and calligrapher, he combines the strict clarity of regular calligraphy with the expressiveness of semi-cursive calligraphy. Despite the ambiguity of his political engagement under the Yuan, his calligraphy has always been considered exemplary. Zhao is one of the greatest calligraphers of all time.
Zhao is a Buddhist. The Heart Sutra is perfect for serving as a model for two reasons. It is the shortest of the Sutras and its most classic version fits in five or six sheets. It is especially appreciated in China because its oldest known version is in Chinese language.
Several pieces calligraphed by Zhao are known. After a long career, he dies in 1322 CE at the age of 68, and these works cannot be dated with precision. An ancient legend shows the artist copying a Heart Sutra to exchange it with a monk for tea.
A Heart Sutra by Zhao Mengfu was sold for RMB 190M including premium by Poly on December 17, 2017, lot 3535. This piece is a five-sheet 28.6 x 12 cm album, with no drawing added. The five sheets are illustrated twice in the post-sale article by The Value.
> 1417 Persian Manuscripts on Chinese Paper
2020 SOLD for £ 7M including premium
The Timurid empire broke out after his death. His son Shahrukh reigned over Persia and transferred the capital from Samarkand to Herat. He re-established relations with China through the silk road and became immensely wealthy. He did not seek conquests, took the title of sultan and protected Islam.
This political lull occured during the reign of Yongle of the Ming. A first Chinese embassy reaches Herat in 815 AH (1412 CE). China produces porcelain decorated in Muslim taste to serve as a diplomatic gift. The second embassy in 820 AH brought many gifts including porcelain but also silks, brocades, velvets and paper. This embassy is probably the terminus post quem of the Persian books on Chinese paper.
The Chinese luxury paper is thick, and designed to be extremely soft and silky to the touch. The Chinese workshops prepare the folio on a monochrome background in various hues of blue, pink, lavender, yellow and green. They then add an illustration in gold, with speckled patterns and sometimes figurative drawings, without human representation in conformance with the iconographic principles of Islam. The Persian workshops add their text on this preparation.
A dozen Persian manuscripts on Chinese paper are known, including four Qur'ans. One of these Qur'ans, recently discovered, consists of 534 folios 23 x 16 cm, 29 of which have been replaced. The text in Naskh script is written on each page in a 14 x 9.4 cm frame. The binding is Safavid. This book is estimated £ 600K for sale by Christie's in London on April 2 (postponed to June 25), lot 29.
1430 Imperial Wisdom
2018 SOLD for HK$ 240M including premium
A gold ink on dark blue paper is sumptuous. A Lotus Sutra handwritten in 1345 CE for the education of a child emperor of Korea was sold for HK $ 31.6M including premium by Sotheby's on May 30, 2016. The lot consisted of seven big albums.
Buddhism is essential for the consolidation of the Ming dynasty. After the death of the warrior emperor Yongle, his Buddhist advisers organize a period of peace. The very short reign of the Hongxi emperor initiates the necessary reforms. His son the Xuande emperor can satisfy his artistic talents and grant to Buddhism a preference devoid from political intents.
During the fifth year of his reign, 1430 CE, Xuande commissioned an Elder of the State named Huijin to calligraphy four great Sutras. The paper is covered with dark indigo ink mixed with goat brain. This thick, brilliant and strong layer allows the gold to stay on the surface without diffusing into the paper fibers. This biological constituent is an emulsifier similar to egg white in the tempera paint.
All the four Sutras are realized. Two are kept at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The third was probably early lost in a fire after being presented to a monastery founded with Xuande's sponsorship.
Two cases containing five consecutive albums each from the Sutra of transcendent wisdom or prajnaparamita have survived. In addition to the calligraphy, the work includes illustrations in thin gold lines of Buddhist, imperial and esoteric figures including Buddhas, dragons and demons. This set will be sold by Sotheby's in Hong Kong on April 3, lot 101. The rest of this very long Sutra is lost.
Please watch the video shared by Sotheby's.
1455 Gutenberg Bible
1987 SOLD for $ 5.4M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2020
The work is divided into two volumes, respectively covering the Old and New Testaments in the Latin text of the Vulgate, with a total of 1,282 pages 42 x 30 cm in double folio format printed on both sides. Printing is done in black ink in two columns per page. The typography imitates handwriting. The color decoration and rubrication are not printed but a guide could be provided to the purchaser.
The original edition produced under the supervision of Gutenberg is estimated at 150 copies on paper plus 30 copies on vellum. 21 complete copies have survived, plus 13 limited to one of the two volumes and another 15 with several missing leaves.
On April 7, 1978, Christie's sold for $ 2.2M including premium a copy on paper, completed since the only missing leaf had been supplied in 1953 by a specialist bookseller. This almost perfect copy is currently kept at the Stuttgart State Library.
On October 22, 1987, Christie's sold for $ 5.4M including premium a Volume I on paper, clean and fresh in its original Mainz binding. This book is currently kept at a private university in Japan.
1505 The Best Artists from Ghent and Bruges
2014 SOLD 13.6 M$ including premium
One of these masterpieces is known as the Rothschild Prayerbook. It was sold for £ 8.6 million including premium at Christie's on July 8, 1999. It is estimated $ 12M, for sale by Christie 's in New York on January 29.
It is a book of hours for the use of Rome (meaning that is based on Roman liturgy), made around 1505 in Ghent or Bruges. In a small format 23 x 16 cm, this book with 252 leaves in luxurious vellum includes 67 large illustrations.
From an iconographic point of view, it is a fabulous collection of religious and liturgical scenes, showing in very fresh colors the life and customs of its time. Decorative borders offer an extended variety of topics.
The styles of these images clearly show that several workshops have co-operated, and comparison with other manuscripts and paintings can identify that it was made by the most renowned artists of their time. Their co-operation in such collective artworks was an extraordinary and unique business of which no direct witnessing has surfaced.
The main illustrators of the Rothschild Prayerbook were Gerard Horenbout who worked at Ghent and Alexander Bening, a member of the guilds of Bruges and Ghent. Simon Bening, son of Alexander, to whom a few images are attributed, will be the last great Flemish illuminator. The style of Gerard David, the leading painter in Bruges at that time, is recognized on several images.
POST 2014 SALE COMMENT
This masterpiece reaches once again a great price : $ 13.6M including premium.
I invite you to play the video shared by Christie's :
A very #MerryChristmas to all. Here’s a stunning #nativity scene from the #RothschildPrayerbook! pic.twitter.com/RIVYbiXLjC— Christie's Books (@ChristiesBKS) December 25, 2015
1520-1539 The Princeps Edition of the Talmud
2015 SOLD for $ 9.3M including premium
The invention of printing was not immediately applied to Hebrew types. In Italy, some Christian illuminators were able to continue their business during the last decades of the fifteenth century by adapting their expertise to the copy of Hebrew books.
The first books printed in Hebrew also appeared in Italy. A Mishneh Torah printed in Bologna in 1482 was sold for € 2.8 million including premium by Christie's on April 30, 2014. The texts are cleverly arranged in blocks for an easy comparison within the page between the basic text and its commentaries. There is nothing similar in the Christian culture as far as I know.
Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer in Venice, obtained in 1515 the permission to print in Hebrew. His princeps editions of the Talmud are a major project carried out in three phases : the Babylonian Talmud from 1520 to 1523, the Talmud of Jerusalem in 1522 and 1523 and additional tractates from 1525 to 1539 that went to complete his Babylonian Talmud.
The result is an achievement. The composition continues the tradition of confrontational blocks with such skill that they will serve for centuries as a prototype for further printed editions of the Talmud. The rabbinical sources are carefully selected and considered as indisputable. The book is printed on a beautiful heavy paper.
Westminster Abbey once owned the finest surviving copy of the Babylonian Talmud of Bomberg, complete of its 3472 leaves of great freshness, in nine volumes 39 x 27 cm in a period binding. When he was assembling his Valmadonna Trust Library, the collector Jack Lunzer managed to acquire this set by providing in exchange a valuable old charter of the abbey.
The Bomberg Talmud of the Valmadonna Trust Library is estimated $ 5M for sale by Sotheby's in New York on December 22, lot 12.
The Valmadonna collection was exhibited at Sotheby's in February 2009. The video below, which is an introduction to the 11000 pieces displayed in this exhibition, demonstrates convincingly why the Bomberg Talmud is the most important jewel in this stunning library.
1640 Psalms for a New World
2013 SOLD 14.2 M$ including premium
The singing of the psalms is a strong element of their liturgy, linking together the first parishioners of that region still in wilderness. Their scholars do not want to use the available British translations. Their new version in English verse takes the excuse of a need to be closer to the original Hebrew text. It was actually a remarkable collective work, and the first sign of their independence from the Church of England.
They now have to publish this text. In London, Josse Glover supports the project and in turn leaves to America in 1638. He did not reach it, but he was accompanied by Stephen Day (or Daye), a locksmith who will be the first printer in New England.
Currently known by the nickname Bay Psalm Book, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre is printed by Day in 1640 in Cambridge and sold by the earliest bookseller of New England, Hezekiah Usher.
The original edition consisted of 1700 copies. For a century, the book was highly successful and often reprinted. Because of its liturgical use, most copies were damaged and destroyed.
The arrival at auction of a copy in good condition of the 1640 edition is an event of the utmost importance for American bibliophiles and patriots. In 1947, one of them went to be more expensive than the Old Testament of the Gutenberg Bible.
Another one is estimated $ 15M to 30M, for sale by Sotheby's in New York on November 26. Here is the link to the home page of the sale. The seller is the Old South Church in Boston which keeps another copy in a similar condition.
POST SALE COMMENT
The Bay Psalm Book was sold for $ 14.2M including premium.
I invite you to play the video shared by Sotheby's :