The renowned late-19th and early 20th-century collector of Hebraica and Judaica David Solomon (Suleiman) Sassoon, born in Baghdad in 1880, led a lifelong quest across the Middle East to build the ultimate religious library, whose codices and incunabula provide the world with a crucial, largely medieval view of the origins of what are called the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The “Ohel Dawid,” Sassoon’s catalogue of his stunning collection, is the record of his life’s work, and one lodestone in that catalogue is what’s known as “Sassoon 1053,” or more commonly as the Sassoon Codex, one of the most complete Hebrew bibles in existence. Sotheby’s has announced its auction in its May sale. The Codex is being put under the hammer by the well-known Swiss investor and film producer Jacqui (Jacob) Eli Safra, under whose ownership the manuscript was formally certified as originating in the 10th century.
It’s hard to overstate the provenance of the Codex Sassoon, which is one very good reason that the manuscript heads into Sotheby’s May sale with the highest auction estimate of any book or manuscript in the world to date. The corollary to that is also crucial to the price it will bring: It’s hard to overstate the debt that scholars of religion, the literary world, libraries, universities and bibliophiles in general owe to David Solomon Sassoon. Sassoon was the scion of the prominent Baghdad Jewish family and namesake grandson of the renowned early-19th-century businessman and cotton trader David Sassoon of Baghdad and Mumbai. David Solomon Sassoon’s collecting took place primarily in the late Victorian Middle East, bridging up to and past World War 1.
The point is that Sassoon realized early that the medieval record of Judaism’s ancient roots and scholarship, both in the codices and in the incunabula, lay strewn in Jewish communities across North Africa, Syria, Turkey, Yemen and on out to the Cochin Jewish community of his grandfather’s adopted India. Some of the treasure was well-kept but a high quotient of it in great danger of disappearing.
Sassoon’s quest led him far and wide: Beginning with his own collecting in Baghdad, through Morrocco, Turkey, Yemen, and Syria he was able to amass, by 1915, some five hundred manuscripts. By 1932, when he issued the Ohel Dawid, the collection had more than doubled to encompass some 1200 works. He got the Farhi Bible from Aleppo, Syria, said to have been transcribed in France in late 14th century, and he snapped up the Damascus Pentateuch codex (from Damascus) in 1915. Among the collection was, also, a hand-written copy of Maimonedes’ own very wittily-entitled Guide for the Perplexed, in which Maimonedes made his famous joust at reconciling Aristotelian philosophy with ancient Jewish theology. Sassoon acquired his Guide for the Perplexed in Yemen, but it had been hand-copied in Spain in 1397.
Sassoon died in Islington, London, in 1942, in the days before offshore trusts came into such vogue as they now enjoy as tax vehicles. To settle British estate taxes some of the now-renowned collection began to be auctioned off and/or donated to British institutions between 1975 and the mid-1990s, which is how the British Library acquired its chunk of Sassoon manuscripts and the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem got the Damascus Pentateuch. It’s during this 20 years of auctions in the late 20th century — invariably at Sotheby’s — that the Sassoon Codex came into circulation, and was, amazingly, not snapped up by an academic or research institution. The University of Toronto holds those parts of the collection that were not auctioned off by the family during this period.
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Jacqui Safra has been a fine custodian of the Codex for many years, and it’s under his auspices that the date of its 10th-century manufacture has been scientifically confirmed. The key to the manuscript’s extreme rarity and historical value — forming the plinth for its stratospheric auction estimate and presumed hammer price come May — lies in its wholeness. With its 24 “books” aggregated into three sections — the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings — the Sassoon Codex is the closest thing we have in book form to what’s colloquially known as the Old Testament, whose 39 “books” also form the foundation of Christian teaching. Many of the swirl of ancient stories surrounding the character of Abraham are, also, found in the texts of early Islam, all of which makes this grand volume even more of a lodestone.
Out of the public view for the last 40 years, Sotheby’s will kick off the Codex’s global exhibition tour in London on February 22, where it will be on view for six days. After that it will be flown to the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, and then be exhibited in the States, with stops in Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York City. It will go under the hammer on May 16. Odds are very low that it will meet or exceed its astronomical estimate.