A 1,100-year-old near-complete Hebrew Bible set to break record at Sotheby's

In the upcoming May, the earliest, most complete copy of the Hebrew Bible is going under the hammer at Sotheby's New York with an estimate between US$30 and 50 million, which could make it the most valuable historical document ever sold at auction. The current auction record stands at US$43.2 million, set by a first printing of the U.S. Constitution in 2021.

Dating to cira 900 A.D., the 1,100-year-old manuscript is known as the Codex Sassoon, named for its eminent modern owner, David Solomon Sassoon, an important collector of Judaica and Hebraic manuscripts. Billed by the house as the oldest intact Hebrew Bible, the Sassoon contains all 24 books of the Bible, with only 12 leaves missing.

Codex Sassoon, The Earliest Most Complete Hebrew Bible
Circa 900, Land of Israel or Syria
Estimate: US$30,000,000 - 50,000,000

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: Codex Sassoon: The Earliest Most Complete Hebrew Bible
Date and Time: 17 May 2023 | 2:00pm (New York Time)

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 were copied by the Masoretes with indication on how the words should be spelled, 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 present lot – 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 Codex Sassoon is named for its modern owner, David Solomon Sassoon

The Death Sea Scrolls is the earliest known Hebrew biblical manuscripts

Adding to its historical value are the annotations that unfolds the book's journey across centuries; the first of which was a deed of sale dating back to 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. 

David Solomon Sassoon, an important collector of Hebraic and Judaica manuscripts

While the reconstruction never happened, the Codex's trail became murky for nearly six centuries, until it resurfaced for sale in 1929 in Frankfurt, where David Solomon Sassoon 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 has worked with Sotheby's to conduct carbon dating analysis to affirm its age.

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

Regarding the ambitious price tag, Sotheby's has taken into consideration the two previous record-breaking sales of historic texts – the first being the Codex Leicester, a collection of scientific writings by Leonardo da Vinci, which Bill Gates bought in 1994 for US$30.8 million; the second a first printing of the U.S. Constitution, purchased by billionaire Ken Griffin in 2021 for US$43.2 million.

Other factors include its near-complete condition, the important historical value, and the enormous production costs, including innumerable hours of labor and the material from well over 100 animal skins.

While the sale's result is yet to be unveiled until May, a global tour will see the Codex Sassoon return to display after 40 years, beginning with an exhibition at Sotheby's London from 22 to 28 February, followed by stops in Tel Aviv, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York City.