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Collection of Rare Hebraica Expected to Fetch Up to $11 Million

October 12, 2004
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Prayer books with commentary are plentiful today, but in medieval times they were more difficult to obtain. Hand lettered by master craftsmen and often boasting exquisite illuminations, prayer books were then only produced for the very rich. The precious few that survive are expensive to purchase.

But for those who can afford it, some rare and unusual Hebraica treasures will be up for grabs in New York on Oct. 27-28, when more than 450 items from Britain’s Montefiore Endowment are due to be sold.

Auctioneers at Sotheby’s expect the collection, spanning eight centuries and diverse parts of the Diaspora, to fetch up to $11 million.

A 15th-century Hebrew Bible from Spain could fetch up to $350,000, and an illuminated Italian manuscript from around 1460, containing prayers and poems on life-cycle events such as marriage, circumcision and death, is expected to go for up to $200,000.

Other treasures include Sefer Ha’assufot, a 14th-century work by the scholar Elijah ben Isaac of Carcassone, full of unpublished responsa and legal documents, that is estimated at between $120,000 and $150,000.

It’s a collection that Camilla Previte, head of Judaica at Sotheby’s in London, describes as “fantastic” both in quality and scope. “It gives an example of every area a collector could possibly want,” she says.

The assortment contains works from areas as far apart as Germany, Greece, North Africa and Yemen, and along with biblical and talmudic works encompasses subjects as varied as philosophy, medicine and music.

For Kabbalah buffs, there is Hayye ha-olam Ha Ba, an Italian manuscript by Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia from the late 14th or early 15th century explaining the meanings of the 72 names of God. Written on parchment, with illustrations, it contains precise instructions for achieving mystical meditation.

The collection comes from the library of the Judith Lady Montefiore College established in 1869 by the Anglo-Jewish banker and philanthropist, Moses Montefiore.

Founded in memory of his late wife Judith, the institution was intended to promote the study of both Torah and Hebrew literature.

When Montefiore died, the college passed into the trusteeship of London’s Spanish and Portuguese Congregation, and Moses Gaster became principal.

An enthusiastic collector, the Romanian-born scholar acquired most of the works included in the forthcoming sale during his tenure between 1890-96. In 1899, the majority of the library was transferred to Jews College in London, where it stayed for the whole of the 20th century.

Proceeds from the auction will go toward Jewish education and scholarships in the United Kingdom, the purpose for which the Endowment Trust was formed. The organization will, however, retain the core of the collection, made up of books personally acquired by Montefiore himself.

“It’s always sad when a library is broken up but at least it will go to people who will hopefully love them, and start new collectors off,” Previte said. “The trustees have decided now is the time to let them go.”

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