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Seforim And Spirituality At Sotheby’s

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The sea of people pouring out of the elevators on the tenth floor of Sotheby’s varied greatly in their age, dress, and religious associations. But as they entered the exhibit, they shared a universal expression of awe and reverence. Thirteen thousand rare and ancient books looked down from the shelves and the crowd stared back in fascinated silence.


There have been many exhibits featured in Sotheby’s in their more than 200 years, but never before has a collection which has so much impact on the Jewish people been on display. The exhibition, which was open to the public for the duration of last week, was an impressively designed display featuring the thousands of books of the Valmadonna Trust library. The Valmadonna trust is named after a small town in Italy and represents a lifetime of dedicated and meticulous collecting by its owner, Jack Lunzer.


The books of the Valmadonna trust represent a broad spectrum both geographically and historically. The only thing common to every piece is the fact that it is written in Hebrew letters. The books are arranged and displayed by place of origin. Much of the collection comes from Italy, which, as the display states, was a hotbed of Jewish printing and innovation. But there are also featured items from much farther afield. From Amsterdam to Alexandria, Bombay to Shanghai, almost every place in the world that has felt the influence of the Jewish people is represented.


Some of the most rare items in the collection are Pesach Haggados from around the world, including one printed in Prague in 1526, the earliest dated and illustrated Haggada in existence. Many of the books are representative of major events in Jewish history. There are several books that survived periods of intense persecution and wanton book burning. Some texts, like an ancient sefer Tehillim, are incomplete after undergoing strict censorship by the Church. 


The pride of the collection is the set of the Bomberg Talmud. Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer, put together a team of scholars and experts and codified and printed the first full set of the Babylonian Talmud between the years 1519 and 1523. The look and design of the pages of the Bomberg Talmud provide the basis for the Gemaras used throughout the world in yeshivas today.


In a recorded interview that is part of the exhibit, Lunzer talks with justifiable pride of the long and tedious journey he underwent to acquire the set of Gemaras. (Lunzer, who was born in Antwerp in 1924 and views England as his adopted country, earned his wealth in the industrial diamond market, affording him the opportunity to spend much time and money in the compilation of his astounding collection. Listening to his recorded voice, visitors can easily pick up on his personal love and devotion to the books he has spent a lifetime accumulating.)


The Bomberg set had spent decades gathering dust in the basement of Westminster Abbey, but it took years of hard work and the acquisition of the abbey’s 900-year-old charter, before Lunzer was able to negotiate his way into possession of the precious texts.


The fascination and variety of the texts was well matched by the range of the audience that had taken the time to come view them. There were large groups of high-school students as well as many groups of older people, some in their eighties and nineties. There were bearded rabbis in their hats and frocks, alongside men without any head covering at all. There was an inspiring feeling of unity in the air; although each individual had his own reasons to come and see the collection all were bound by a common undeniable feeling of being in the presence of something that so strongly represented our history and heritage.


Among the crowd was the renowned speaker and writer Rabbi Pesach Krohn. When asked what he thought of all the fascinating items on display, he said, “Why don’t you do what I’m doing? I’m following my rebbi and hearing what he has to say, this is how I learn.”


Sure enough there was Rabbi Dovid Cohen, of Congregation Gvul Yaavetz in Brooklyn, surrounded by a small crowd of people and answering questions about the history of individual seforim and their authors as well as more mundane inquiries such as why some of the older seforim were printed on blue paper. “They say this is the biggest private collection in the world,” Rabbi Cohen said, looking appreciatively at the looming shelves, “I’m certainly willing to believe them.”


That the exhibit is being featured at Sotheby’s does not indicate that there will be an auction. Instead, Sotheby’s and Lunzer are searching for a suitable buyer, a collector or library willing to spend $40 million and follow the condition that the collection not be broken up and sold individually. Moshe Lederer, a book restorer by profession and a rare seforim collector by hobby, said, “If I had $40 million I would do it in a second. If you do the math there are 13,000 books for 40 million, that’s about 3,000 a book. Many of these are worth much, much more.”


Who comes away with the collection remains to be seen, but Lunzer has expressed interest in its making its way to either Yeshiva University or the Library of Congress.

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