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Published: Saturday, 2/21/2009

Collection of rare Hebrew books to be auctioned

Above are two illuminations from  Grace Before Meals and Other Benedictions,  an 18th- century Viennese miniature manuscript included in the auction. Above are two illuminations from Grace Before Meals and Other Benedictions, an 18th- century Viennese miniature manuscript included in the auction.

A rare trove of more than 11,000 Hebrew books and manuscripts is up for sale at Sotheby s, collected almost entirely by one 84-year-old diamond merchant who spent decades assembling the collection.

The books and documents date from between the 10th century and early 20th century and were created in Italy, Holland, England, Greece, Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, India, and China.

The owner, Jack Lunzer, a London resident who was born in Antwerp in 1924, said his hope is that the collection, known as the Valmadonna Library Trust, be purchased by the Library of Congress.

That would be my great joy, he said.

Sotheby s estimated its value at $40 million and said the collection will only be sold in its entirety, no items will be sold individually and the collection will not be broken up.

Mr. Lunzer will not benefit from the proceeds of the sale, which is being handled by a trust.

The entire collection was displayed in four large rooms in Sotheby s Rooftop Gallery in Manhattan from Feb. 9 through Feb. 19.

Lauren Gioia, a spokesman for Sotheby s, said nearly 3,000 people attended the exhibition, calling it a spectacular response, but a sale has not been consummated yet.

The Valmadonna Library named after a town near Allesandria, Italy, that the Lunzer family has been associated with since World War II contains a number of extraordinary books and manuscripts.

Among them is a Hebrew Bible, handwritten in 1189 in England, known as the Codex Valmadonna I. It is the only known Hebrew text still in existence that was created before King Edward I expelled the Jews in 1290. The manuscript was found in York, where the Jewish community was massacred and its property looted in 1190.

The collection also contains a copy of the Babylonian Talmud produced between 1519 and 1523 by Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer of Hebrew books. Mr. Lunzer said he had sought to own the text since learning of its existence in 1951, and was able to do so after purchasing a 900-year-old copy of Westminster Abbey s original charter and offering it in exchange for the Bomberg Talmud.

The first printing press was invented in the early 1450s in the Mainz, Germany, workshop of Johannes Gutenberg. Jewish artisans, banned from joining German printing guilds, established their own workshops and began printing Hebrew texts in Rome around 1470. The Valmadonna Library contains nearly half of the 140 Hebrew titles from 15th and 16th century Italy.

Some of the books and manuscripts contain burn and water marks that illustrate persecution of the Jews.

There were book bannings and book burnings and endless efforts to try and destroy the culture of the Jews, said David Redden, Sotheby s vice president. The books are important not just because of the information they contain but because of the stories they tell, how difficult life was.

Before the library came to New York, the books were housed in Mr. Lunzer s London home, filling every single corner, nook, and cranny, closet, and attick, Mr. Redden said. Even Mr. Lunzer s garden shed was converted into a repository.

Every one of these books I have held in my hands, Mr. Lunzer said. They re my friends.

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