When walking into the main exhibit space at New York’s Sotheby’s Auction House, one expects to see beautiful rare items for sale. There have been famous auctions of important historic documents, works of art and antiques. Often the exhibit hall has become a sort of museum, with people viewing the sale items while knowing there is no possibility of buying them.
Sotheby’s has also had numerous Judaic auctions, and recently it hosted the Valmadonna Trust Library.
As reported in last week’s Jewish Press, the Valmadonna Trust Library is the largest and most important Jewish library in private hands and has rarely been available for public viewing. The library’s collection has been the lifelong work of Jack Lunzer, who for 70 years has amassed an amazing 13,000 volumes. At this stage Lunzer, with an asking price of $40 million for the collection, hopes the buyer will make it available for study by scholars and students.
Rather than the library’s sheer number of books, it is its content that makes the library noteworthy. Lunzer claims no duplicates in the collection, with each volume telling its own story. There is the Babylonian Talmud (1519-23) that Lunzer says was ordered by King Henry VIII and stored in Westminster Abbey. It is the earliest complete printing of the Talmud, and its design was the predecessor of the Talmudic layout we see in modern sets of Talmud.
Other Talmudic items on display have evidence of censorship by church authorities. The exhibit also includes the earliest printed Haggadah (Prague, 1526), which includes the earliest known verse of printed Yiddish.
Student examining some of the displayed manuscripts.
While many volumes are familiar to a Jewish scholar (Haggadahs, Siddurim, Chumashim, and the Talmud), many works are unique and unknown to many Jews. One book of particular interest demonstrates an inimitable printing method. Hebrew words are comprised from roots and conjunctions, whereby letters are added or subtracted from a word. This distinctive edition (the Book of Nachum is the displayed sample) was created as a tool to teach Hebrew grammar and word structure. Since its publication in 1587, no other similar edition has been printed.
Not all of the collection’s books are Jewish in nature. There is the first scientific work printed in Portugal in 1496 by Abraham (ben Shmuel) Zacuto, a Jewish astrologer, astronomer and mathematician. This book, Lunzer said, is a copy of one of the most important aids in exploration of its time. He said that Columbus is said to have used a copy on his travels to the New World.
The exhibit’s display room.
Despite little advance advertising, the exhibit – through word of mouth – witnessed an hour and a half wait time for admission on its final day. Chabad of Crown Heights, SAR of Riverdale, Bais Yaakov of Ramapo, and the Yeshiva Ketana of Long Island were just some of the schools that braved the cold and long wait to visit this historic exhibition.