Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Who bought the world's greatest collection of Jewish books?

Amazingly, it has gone virtually unnoticed that the world's most important collection of Jewish books and manuscripts, the Valmadonna Trust library, has been sold; the news was broken in the Forward by an academic worried about the collection's future, and picked up almost nowhere.

The collection, which was for sale for $40 million, and which generated great excitement when it was displayed in New York last year, ultimately went in a sealed bid to an unknown buyer. Of course, we will in time know who bought it; they will either start selling it off in bits and pieces - the Forward academic's fear - or start showing it off.

The collection was always going to be a difficult sell. What people perhaps don't realise is how many millions of dollars it takes to maintain a collection like this, full of ancient manuscripts, which need to be stored properly and cared for. Plenty of potential buyers - libraries and universities, which probably don't have spare cash at the moment - would probably think they were doing owner Jack Lunzer a favor if they took it off his hands and requested $40 million to take care of it.

We don't know the condition of sale. One possible scenario is that it was sold off relatively cheaply to a buyer who promised to put some of the balance into keeping the collection together, and maintaining it. But if that's not what happened, perhaps the story of the Oppenheim collection might provide a comforting thought for Mr Lunzer:
The Bodleian Library in Oxford is a major repository of outstanding illuminated Hebrew manuscripts. A key portion of the Hebrew collection at the Bodleian Library consists of the library of David ben Abraham Oppenheim (or Oppenheimer) (1664-1736), acquired in 1829.

Oppenheim was a leading rabbi, liturgist and bibliophile who had inherited a sizable fortune. When he became Chief Rabbi of Prague in 1702, he left his extensive library with his father-in-law in Protestant Hanover, since he feared that the Holy Office might confiscate his books. After his death the library passed from member to member of the Oppenheim family, eventually being pawned with a senator in Hamburg and stored away in twenty-eight cases.

To facilitate its sale, special catalogs were printed, but the various attempts to sell the library were unsuccessful. Although the Oppenheim collection was valued at £22,000 by the noted savant Moses Mendelssohn, this library of some 780 Hebrew manuscripts was finally obtained by the Bodleian Library for the trifling sum of £2,000.
Cheap, perhaps, but what a good home. Let's hope for a similarly happy ending for the Valmadonna.

No comments: