Museum acquires 14th century Bible before Sotheby’s auction

The 14th century illuminated Hebrew Bible from Spain sold before auction to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The Smart Collector

WHAT: Widely promoted before an annual sale of important Judaica, a significant illuminated Hebrew Bible dating to early 14th century Spain never made it to auction last December. Shortly before the sale, Sotheby’s New York announced that the lot had sold privately to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The transaction was, in auction-speak, “for an undisclosed sum.” Presale estimate was $3.5 million to $5 million.

Auction houses have differing policies on private sales. Presales of scheduled auction lots are rare (we’ve seen less than a handful in decades), but when they do happen, they involve items of importance and major money. The transaction often involves a cultural institution.

MORE: From the private collection of Jacqui E. Safra, the Bible, originating in Castile, dates from the Golden Age of medieval Spain. The text shows Jewish, Muslim and Christian influences and is considered a prime example of cross-cultural cooperation. Beyond being a superior example of its kind, the Bible is a landmark from a unique era.

SMART COLLECTORS KNOW: Bibles are the most copied and printed books in history. Varied versions go back ages. When a collector claims to have an “old” Bible from the 1800s, it is not old, as Bibles go. Such relatively recent Bibles are collected mainly for historic family records and notes inscribed or kept within.


HOT TIP: According to Sotheby’s, the major significance of the book shown is that it was made during a time when cultural co-existence was the norm. Created by a team, it shows clear influence from all three religions: art ranges from Arabic arches to micrographic illustrations with burnished gold as seen in traditional illuminations.

BOTTOM LINE: This Bible was one of six known to be in private hands. The entire Judaica sale of almost 190 lots realized $3.4 million.