A 14th-century Hebrew Bible tonight fetched a record $825,000 at a Sotheby's auction of 97 rare Judaic manuscripts that totaled $3.1 million.
The richly illuminated Spanish Bible, transcribed in 1312 by Shem Tov ben Abraham Gaon, illustrated lavishly with birds, animals and geometric designs, led the sale of manuscripts from the estate of the late David Solomon Sassoon, a member of the noted Bombay mercantile family. It topped the previous record for a Hebrew manuscript of $455,000 set in 1975 in Zurich. The buyer was reportedly a California collector, though Sotheby's refused to comment.
The fourth in a series of sales held over the past 10 years to disperse more than 1,300 documents collected in the early 20th century by Sassoon, tonight's auction included a vast array of material from the 10th century through the 19th century, covering Jewish thought, laws and religion.
The second highest bid tonight was for a 14th-century German manuscript containing the writings of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon on the great legal codes of Maimonides. It sold for $451,000 to Israeli dealer Azekiel Toporowitz.
A fully illustrated astronomical table, along with treatises on astronomy and lunar eclipses, was purchased for $440,000 by an unnamed private dealer -- the third highest bid.
A liturgy for the whole year "according to the old Roman Rite" fetched $209,000. The liturgy, written in 1415 in Perugia, Italy, was sold to an anonymous American buyer.
Much of the appeal of tonight's sale had to do with the name David Solomon Sassoon. The grandson of David ben Sassoon, founder of a vast mercantile empire that stretched from Hong Kong to Western Europe, Sassoon was born in 1882 in Bombay to an enormously rich and sophisticated family.
By the age of 18, having mastered Arabic, Persian, Hindustani and English, and memorized the Bible in Hebrew, Sassoon started what would become a world-rank collection of Hebraica. The Sassoon library was moved in 1914 to London where it was documented in a two-volume scholarly work published by Oxford Univeristy Press in 1932.
Unlike Sotheby's contested sale of Judaica last June, which the New York state attorney general has blocked pending a trial to determine the rightful owner, the sale tonight included material unquestionably owned by the Sassoon family. On his death in 1942, Sassoon left two heirs, a son and a daughter. Until the first sale in 1975, the Sassoon library had been available to scholars in Zurich.
Competition in the room was hot. Israelis vied with Americans. Rich private collectors outbid financially strapped institutions. Nearly every one of the 400 bidders in the room -- many of them under 40 -- got into the action at one time or another -- all of which added to the excitement, anticipation and confusion over who bought what.
"Good Judaica is extremely rare," George Schneider, Sotheby's Judaica specialist, said. "Nazi Germany is only the most recent example of book burnings. This stuff is not only rare but it is an invaluable link to a vanished past. Young Jews -- in Israel and America -- are proud of their heritage in a way their parents couldn't be. And willing to pay top dollar for it."