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French Exit: A Rare Prayerbook and the Fate of Jewish Cultural Heritage

October 29, 2021
image of a book - Jewish illuminated manuscript

Luzzatto High Holiday Mahzor

The auction room is where one can witness some once-in-a-lifetime moments. Having briefly worked at an auction house myself, there’s always a small thrill in seeing a rare item being fought over, ending with the sharp rap of the hammer. One of those moments recently took place at Sotheby’s when, on October 19th, a rare Jewish illuminated manuscript went for $8.3 million.

The Luzzatto High Holiday Mahzor is named after one of the book’s former owners, Samuel David Luzzatto, a nineteenth-century Italian rabbi, poet, and book-collector. It is an example of an extremely rare form of manuscript, as there are only about twenty medieval Jewish illuminated books known to currently exist. It is also now the second most valuable piece of Judaica to sell at auction, only behind the Bomberg Talmud, which was sold at Sotheby’s for $9.3 million in 20l5. Though the Mahzor’s buyer is anonymous, some experts have guessed that it is a prominent private collector based in the United States.

The book was created in Bavaria in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, but later found its way to Switzerland, France, and Northern Italy throughout its lifetime. It was a rare luxury item even when it was first produced, since movable type was not introduced to Europe until the Mahzor was nearly two-hundred years old. This means that every page of the book was written and decorated by hand by an extremely skilled artisan. To that artisan’s credit, the Luzzatto Mahzor is known to contain some of the greatest known examples of Hebrew calligraphy and medieval Jewish illustration. Furthermore, the annotations and edits allow us to gain further knowledge on the theological and cultural differences between different European Jewish communities.

Soon after Luzzatto’s death in 1865, the Mahzor found itself in the hands of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a French Jewish education organization based in Paris. The AIU has expressed its intent to use the proceeds to fund educational programs and scholarships. Sotheby’s experts estimated the book to fetch anywhere between $4 million and $6 million. So, it was a great surprise when it was bought for over double the low estimate by an unknown collector.

However, the sale has a slightly darker side that few are mentioning. The sale of the Luzzatto Mahzor is indicative of Jewish treasures moving from public museums and libraries to private collections. The Sotheby’s sale was made, more or less, out of desperation. According to the AIU’s leading figures, like Marc Eisenberg and Roger Cukierman, the organization would not have had funds to operate past 2030 without the proceeds from the sale. Other Jewish organizations on both sides of the Atlantic are having to face similar situations, with New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary selling many of its resources over the past several years. There were even some who called for the French government to declare the Luzzatto Mahzor a national treasure to prevent the sale. Some have compared the book to the Mona Lisa regarding its cultural and artistic importance to Jewish people in Europe.

Some experts like Sharon Mintz, Sotheby’s senior Judaica consultant, believe that despite the Mahzor’s transference from a public European institution to a private American collection, the book will enjoy even greater recognition and visibility. She told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the speculated buyer “is known to be very generous in sharing his manuscripts with the public – they have been in many public exhibitions and the buyer also provides access to scholars.” Furthermore, the fact that the book reached such a high price at auction will add not only to its future value but has already added to public awareness of the Mahzor’s existence and importance. But even if the new owner is more restrictive regarding access to the Mahzor, there may be nothing to worry about. It’s possible that the piece won’t stay in private hands for long; that for tax purposes, the private collector will likely donate the Mahzor to a library or other public exhibit. So perhaps the fears of some may be unfounded; that the book “would disappear in a safe” for the foreseeable future.