2023 Auction Wrapped | A 1,100-year-old Hebrew Bible resurfaces and breaks auction record at US$38.1m

In 2023, the world's oldest, most intact copy of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Codex Sassoon, sold for US$38.1 million at Sotheby's New York, smashing the auction record for a manuscript set in 1994, when Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates purchased Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester manuscript for US$30.8 million at Christie's New York. It was also the most expensive item of Judaica ever sold at auction. 

Dating to circa 900 A.D., the record-setting manuscript is named for its eminent modern owner, David Solomon Sassoon. Billed by the house as the oldest intact Hebrew Bible, the Sassoon contains all 24 books of the Bible, with only 12 leaves missing.

It was acquired by former US Ambassador to Romania Alfred H. Moses, who is gifting it to the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, Israel to become part of its core collection. "I rejoice in knowing that it belongs to the Jewish People. It was my mission, realizing the historic significance of Codex Sassoon, to see that it resides in a place with global access to all people," he said in a statement.

Codex Sassoon | Circa 900, Land of Israel or Syria (Auction record for a manuscript and any item of Judaica ever sold)
Format: 792 pages
Condition: Probably lacking about twelve whole folios, eight containing biblical text and four others at the front which may have contained frontmatter 
Estimate: US$30,000,000 - 50,000,000
Sold: US$38,826,000

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: Codex Sassoon: The Earliest Most Complete Hebrew Bible
Date: 17 May 2023

Shortly after the auction, Sotheby's announced that the winning bid was placed by Alfred H. Moses on behalf of the American Friends of ANU, where Moses serves as Chair of the International Board of Governors. As reported by US media, however, the eight-figure sum was presumably paid by Moses and his family. 

An attorney who works at Covington & Burling, Moses has been active in the religious life and was President of the American Jewish Committee from 1991 to 1995. Under President Jimmy Carter, he served as Special Advisor and Special Counsel to the President. He was the US Ambassador to Romania from 1994 to 1997, and Special Presidential Emissary for the Cyprus problem from 1999 to 2001. Since 2004, he has also been the Chair of UN Watch. 

While Codex Sassoon has become the most valuable manuscript ever sold at auction, it failed to beat the record for a historical text – which currently stands at US$43.2 million, set by the first printing of the U.S. Constitution when it sold to billionaire Ken Griffin in 2021 at Sotheby's New York.

Codex Sassoon has become the most valuable manuscript ever sold at auction

Ambassador Alfred H. Moses of Washington, DC and the Moses family acquired the Codex Sassoon

The earliest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible are the Dead Sea Scrolls, which dated from the 3rd century B.C. to the 1st century A.D, with the vast majority having survived as fragments. For the next 700 years, a period the scholars called near-total silence, there appeared to be no records of a written bible, as Jews mainly relied on inherited oral traditions.

And then there came the earliest known Hebrew Bible in the form of a book – instead of scrolls – which the Masoretes copied with indications on how the words should be spelt, vocalized, and accented.

Apart from the Codex Sassoon, two other complete Hebrew Bibles from this period are known to exist. The Aleppo Codex, which resides in the Israel Museum, was created around 930 A.D. and is similar in age to the Codex Sassoon – but it is missing nearly two-fifths of its pages, including most of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.

Another one, the Leningrad Codex – housed in the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg – is entirely complete, though being almost a century younger than the Sassoon.

The Death Sea Scrolls is the earliest known Hebrew biblical manuscripts

Codex Sassoon is dubbed by the auction house as "the earliest, most complete copy of the Hebrew Bible"

Adding to its historical value are the annotations that unfold the book's journey across centuries; the first of which was a deed of sale dating back to the 11th century from Khalaf ben Abraham, possibly a businessman active in Israel and Syria, to Isaac ben Ezekiel al-Attar, who passed it on to his sons Ezekiel and Maimon. 

In the 13th century, it was dedicated to the synagogue in a town once known as Makisin, situated in present-day northeastern Syria. After Makisin was destroyed – either by the Mongol Empire in 1300 or the Timurid Empire in 1400 – the Codex was entrusted to Salama bin Abi al-Fakhr, a member of the Jewish community being required to return it once the synagogue was rebuilt. 

Codex Sassoon

Codex Sassoon

While the reconstruction never happened, the Codex's trail became murky for nearly six centuries, until it resurfaced for sale in 1929 in Frankfurt. It was where David Solomon Sassoon, a collector who assembled the most significant private collection of Judaica and Hebraica manuscripts in the twentieth century, bought it for £350. Sassoon's heirs later sold it to the British Rail Pension Fund for US$320,000 in 1978.

In 1989, the book was offered for auction at Sotheby's New York, going for US$3.19 million to an unnamed buyer, from whom the present owner, Jacqui Safra, a Swiss investor and heir of the Syrian Lebanese-Swiss Safra banking family, purchased for US$4.19 million. During his stewardship, Safra worked with Sotheby's to conduct carbon dating analyses to affirm its age.

The Bible is named after David Solomon Sassoon, who assembled the most significant private collection of Judaica and Hebraica manuscripts in the twentieth century

Jacqui Safra, a Swiss investor and heir of a Syrian Lebanese-Swiss Jewish banking family