The world's oldest and most complete Hebrew Bible will go on display in London, Tel Aviv and the US before an auction at Sotheby's where it could sell for up to $50 million.
The Codex Sassoon bridges the Dead Sea Scrolls ― which date from as early as the third century BC and were found in caves in 1947 ― and today's accepted form of the Hebrew Bible. It contains all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible but is missing some pages from Genesis.
It is one of a handful of rare historical artefacts that has survived the centuries to allow a window into the past and develop modern cultural understanding.
The book, which dates back to the ninth or 10th century, is due to come up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York in May for the first time in more than 30 years.
Sharon Mintz, a senior Judaica specialist in Sotheby’s books and manuscripts department, anticipates a range of prospective buyers. “We think there’s a wide market of people who’d be interested,” she said. The codex “would be the jewel in the crown of an institutional collection”. It could also “appeal to many private buyers who are looking for masterpiece objects, things of tremendous religious, historical, and spiritual value.”
According to the auction house, the book has long been a foundational cornerstone to civilisations and communities around the globe and is arguably the most influential book in human history.
Composed of 24 books divided into three parts ― the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings ― the Hebrew Bible is the foundation for Judaism as well as the other Abrahamic faiths.
The book is named after its modern owner, collector and philanthropist David Solomon Sassoon, who assembled the most significant private collection of Judaica and Hebraica manuscripts in the world.
He died in 1942 and the codex will come to auction from renowned collector and investor Jacqui Safra after a decades-long stewardship. He had the Codex Sassoon carbon dated to prove its age.
Covering about 396 parchment sheets, the Codex Sassoon carries markings indicating its early owners, including the 13th-century Jewish community of Makisin, located in present-day Syria. Its provenance then becomes murky for the better part of the millennium, but when Sassoon bought the bible in 1929, it re-emerged as a globally recognised artefact.
Today its only contemporaries are the Aleppo Codex, which was assembled in the early 10th century, and the Leningrad Codex, a complete manuscript of the Bible which is thought to have been written about a century later. In contrast with the nearly complete Codex Sassoon, only about 300 of the estimated 487 original folios of the Aleppo Codex survive.
With an estimate of $30 million to $50 million, Codex Sassoon will be the most valuable printed manuscript or historical document by estimate yet offered at auction.
If it sells for its high estimate it will become the most expensive manuscript or book to sell at auction.
“We came to this estimate because this is the most significant document or manuscript to come up for sale in, I don’t know, for ever,” Ms Mintz said.
She said that given how singular the codex is, the only comparable measures were other sales of very different objects, including Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, known as the Codex Leicester, which Bill Gates purchased in 1994 for $30.8 million. A copy of the US Constitution, acquired by Citadel founder Ken Griffin in 2021 for $43.2 million, was another deemed to be a peer. “And that was one of multiple,” Ms Mintz said in reference to the constitution. “We’re talking about a singular manuscript.”
Given that it is more than 1,000 years old, “it’s in remarkably good condition”, Ms Mintz said. “Over the years it’s been restored, and it’s been re-bound multiple times.” She said the parchment “is extremely durable material, it’s a stable, strong structure, and the ink is good.”
Despite being recognised for its importance by scholars for generations, the book has remained virtually out of public view for centuries and will be exhibited for the first time in 40 years next week at Sotheby’s London.
After its UK exhibition it will travel for displays in Tel Aviv, Dallas and Los Angeles before the auction in New York.
“Codex Sassoon has long held a revered and fabled place in the pantheon of surviving historic manuscripts and is undeniably one of the most important and singular texts in human history,” said Richard Austin, Sotheby’s global head of books and manuscripts.
“Now that the codex has been definitively dated as the earliest, most complete text of its kind, it stands as a critical link from the ancient Hebrew oral tradition to the modern, accepted form of the Hebrew Bible that remains the standardised version used today.
“With such eminence, the codex has an incomparable presence and gravitas that can only be borne from more than 1,000 years of history.”