Sotheby's unveils the Codex Sassoon for auction, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in the Manhattan borough of New York. Image Credit: AP

A 1,100-year-old Hebrew Bible has sold for $38.1 million at Sotheby's in New York.

The Codex Sassoon, which the auction house says is the oldest nearly complete example in the world, was purchased by the American Friends of the ANU "- Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, as a permanent gift to the museum. Funds for the acquisition were supplied by a donation from Alfred Moses, an attorney and diplomat, and the Moses family.

Speaking on the phone immediately after the sale, Moses says that he resolved to participate in the Codex auction, and about three weeks ago he placed an irrevocable bid of $32.5 million on it, meaning that he'd agreed with the auction house to buy it for that amount; if the price were then pushed above that sum, Moses would receive a prearranged cut of the total.

Did he think he'd be the winning bidder? In short, he says, no. "I thought it would go for much more "- high 40s, low 50s."

The fact that he was able to buy it, he continues, "is a great thrill, to be able to give the oldest existing Hebrew Bible to the Jewish people, to preserve it for the Jewish people, to be on public display forever."

The Codex was sold by investor Jacqui Safra.

Finding a buyer

A considerable amount of anticipation raged, inside the auction house and out, as to who might become the ultimate buyer. Sotheby's toured the Bible, taking it to London, various US cities and Tel Aviv, where it was shown at the ANU in March. More than 20,000 people have viewed it, according to the auction house.

"There have been enormous crowds," says Sharon Mintz, a senior Judaica specialist in the books and manuscripts department at Sotheby's, speaking ahead of the sale. When it arrived in Tel Aviv, "there were lines out the door and around the block," she continues. "People are moved"-it's a feeling of joy. They connect with this manuscript just by being in the same room. It's been astonishing."

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Potential bidders, both private collectors and public institutions, approached the auction house from across the globe, she says. "The articles in newspapers alone had potential bidders calling us. They'd read about it and they came to visit."

Putting a price on a priceless object

The Codex, named after onetime owner David Solomon Sassoon (1880""1942), a collector and member of the powerful Sassoon family, contains all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible; it's missing some pages from Genesis. It is thought to have originated in Israel or Syria and covers 396 parchment pages.

Given its vast age"-it dates from circa 900 CE"-and how nearly complete it is, placing an accurate price on the Codex was difficult. The only comparable texts, Sotheby's says, are the Codex Leicester, a notebook belonging to Leonardo da Vinci that Bill Gates purchased in 1994 for $30.8 million, and an early copy of the US Constitution, which Ken Griffin purchased for $43.2 million in 2021.

The $50 million high estimate was the highest-ever placed on a book or manuscript. Speaking a day before the sale, Mintz says the price was fair. "I don't think it was excessive. There's been so much excitement that I think we were on target," she says.

On Wednesday, there was a robust crowd of onlookers in the room. The auctioneer Benjamin Doller started the bidding at $32 million, and after what appeared to be two phone bidders making bids in $500,000 increments, the Codex hammered at $33.5 million. (Moses was one of those bidders "- he continued to bid past his pre-agreed sum, in other words.) The total sale took just under five minutes to complete.

"There's been enthusiasm from people of all religions, across the globe," says Mintz. "It's been an experience."