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Sale of Hebrew Books by Auction House in Dispute over Their Rightful Owner

June 29, 1984
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Sotheby’s maintained today that the 31 Hebrew books and manuscripts auctioned Tuesday night were “free of any moral taint” and that the persons who provided the auction house with the materials did have legal ownership.

The auction of the rare books and manuscripts, dating from the 13th to 19th centuries, and believed to have been smuggled out of Germany from the College of Scientific Study of Judaism after the Nazis closed the rabbinical seminary in 1942, had been the subject of controversy for more than a week.

Whether the controversy has been settled is yet unclear. A court hearing is scheduled for next month to determine whether the purported owners of the materials are in fact the legal owners and thus will be able to legally transfer title of the rare items.

In a last minute attempt to block the sale, the New York State Supreme Court Tuesday rejected a request from the State Attorney General to prevent Sotheby’s from completing the sales until the Attorney General was convinced that the ownership of the manuscripts were determined legal.


The controversy began when Sotheby’s announced that it would put on sale 33 items that were thought to have been destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. It is believed that the materials were smuggled out of Germany at what Sotheby’s described now as “considerable personal risk” in 1939 by a person authorized by officials of the Seminary, according to The New York Times. Sotheby’s did not identify this person.

Dr. Ismar Schorsch, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, was quoted as saying that the books may have been smuggled out of the college by a historian at the college, Ismar Elbogen. Some of the books had the college’s libris stamp on the inside cover and others are reported to have belonged to the estate of Abraham Geiger, a prominent Jewish historian who willed his belongings to the college after his death in 1874. Elbogen died in New York City in 1943.

After the announcement by Sotheby’s that it would auction off the items, several Jewish groups protested the sale, questioning the legality of the sale. A central question remained: Did the individuals who claimed ownership legally have title to the items? There was also the question of how the items survived the war and who had kept them for the past 40 years.

The Jewish Restitution Successor Organization, which was empowered by the United States Military Government in postwar Germany to receive heirless Jewish property, requested along with other groups that Sotheby’s release the owners’ names in order to determine whether the books and manuscripts were held legally.

This would provide the basis of the legal ownership. If the books had been ever stolen or confiscated by the Nazis, their present ownership might be called into question, although this was still unclear. There was also the question whether the Successor Organization still retains the power granted it in 1948 by the U.S. Military Government to act as legal recipient of such property. This question remains unresolved. Nevertheless, Sotheby’s balked at the request from the Jewish groups, although the auction house remained steadfast in its assertion that it had deemed the present owners the legal owners of the property. Sotheby’s cited its policy of not releasing the names of persons who wish to remain anonymous when putting property up for auction. Sotheby’s also said that the owners had been Jewish.

By midweek, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) stepped into the fray. They adopted a resolution at their meeting in Liberty, N.Y. saying the group would “take all necessary steps to stop this sale until the ownership of these books and manuscripts is clearly established.”

Then the city’s Consumer Affairs Department told the auction house it could not proceed with the planned sale until it showed that those who wish to sell the items are the legal owners. When the Department requested a list of names of the owners of the 33 items, Sotheby’s again refused.

At the same time of the city’s action, the Jewish Theological Seminary announced that it had obtained two of the most valuable of the 33 items. In a private arrangement with the Seminary, Sotheby’s sold two items — a 15th century Bible from Prague, estimated to be worth $500,000 and a 14th century prayer book from Spain, with an estimated value of $200,000.


A donor had provided the funds for the Seminary to obtain the two rare items. The donor’s identity has not been disclosed nor would the Seminary say how much the two items cost. The sale to the Seminary of the two items caused the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith to back down on its objections to the sale.

As the final hours before the sale approached, at which time it could not be determined for certain whether the sale would take place, meetings took place between the auction house, the Consumer Affairs Department and the Attorney General’s office.

The Consumer Affairs Department, which had threatened to block the sale, apparently received sufficient information from Sotheby’s that the items were legally owned, according to reports on Wednesday. The information was provided in confidence and the identities of the owners were not disclosed.

The Attorney General did not receive that information because it said it would not guarantee to protect the confidentiality of the ownership information, as the Consumer Affairs Department had told Sotheby’s it would do with the information.

A late afternoon bid by the Attorney General to block the sale was rebuffed by a judge who refused to sign an injunction barring the sale. The sale proceeded as scheduled with the auction house filled with nearly 500 persons. The Times reported that “in the audience were people from around the world: dealers and collectors from Israel, the United States, South America; scholars from Israel, Hasidim from Brooklyn and those who were just curious.”


Included in the items auctioned Tuesday was a 15th century book of philosophy by the Hebrew scholar Maimonides that sold for $132,000, and 13th and 15th century “Commentaries on the Pentateuch” which sold for $121,000 and $82,250, respectively, Sotheby’s confirmed Wednesday. The identities of the buyers of the items were not released by the auction house.

Prior to the auction, a statement released by the auction house said it would “not have been involved in the sale if there was any type of moral problem” or legal problem with the sale. Sotheby’s reported that their legal council had worked “diligently to determine that ownership was clear and that title could be passed on to another person or institution.”

Despite the apparent sale of the items Tuesday, the CCAR indicated that the Attorney General was still going ahead with a court action to determine the legality of the ownership. There remained a wait and see attitude by the CCAR as to whether the sale Tuesday night is the end of the controversy, or the beginning of a running court battle.

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