Valmadonna Trust Library finds permanent home at National Library of Israel

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

After nearly eight years of uncertainty, the Valmadonna Trust Library has found a permanent home. The National Library of Israel announced in a press release on Wednesday, January 18, 2017, that they purchased from Sotheby’s Auction House 8,000 rare books and manuscripts that were a part of the Valmadonna Trust Library; the largest private collection of rare Jewish books. The National Library bought the collection with the help of two private collectors, couple Dr. David and Jemima Jeselsohn. Neither the Library or Sotheby’s disclosed the purchase price, but the sale ensures a majority of these rare invaluable books to Jewish history will permanently be available to scholars. The collection was considered “the most important private library of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world.”

The National Library of Israel announced the acquisition in a press release. The director of the National Library of Israel, Oren Weinberg made the announcement. Weinberg expressed, “The acquisition of the Valmadonna and its arrival in Jerusalem present a tremendous opportunity for the National Library of Israel to further realize the vision of its renewal, as we will open access to these exquisite cultural treasures for researchers and the general public in Israel and across the globe.”

David Jeselsohn, the private collector, who jointly purchased the collection, also issued a statement. Jeselsohn wrote, “This joint acquisition was done primarily to ensure that the outstanding collection of Hebrew books will find a home in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, and be made available and accessible to anyone interested in the treasures.”

Unfortunately, The National Library did not purchase the entire 13,000-book and 300-document collection; they only received approximately 10,000 of the books and manuscripts. In 2015, Sotheby’s auctioned off nine items in a highly-publicized auction. Additionally, according to the Israeli paper Haaretz, the deal with the private collector gives the National Library only 80 percent of the Valmadonna Library, while the Jeselsohns’ will receive the remaining 20 percent of the collection.

The collector and custodian, Jack Lunzer had always hoped the collection would be sold as a unit, but the price was too high and twice before the collection was divided it could not garner a sale at auction. Lunzer told the New York Times, “These are my friends. I’ll be happy if they are well-kept and respected. Every one of these books is crying its own tears.”

Among the nine items sold in the December 2015 auction include the cornerstone of the collection, the early 16th century Complete Babylonian Talmud printed by Daniel Bomberg in Venice that brought in just over $9 million alone and purchased by Leon Black, “the founder of Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm.” Additionally, the second most prized book of the collection was sold, the Hebrew Bible from England the Pentateuch with Haftarot and the Five Scrolls, a manuscript from 1189 was sold for $3.6 million.

The Bomberg Talmud is from 1519 to 1539 and one of 14 sets surviving, and Daniel Bomberg, a Christian from Venice printed the first complete sets of Babylonian Talmuds. The Bomberg Talmud “is considered to be one of the most important documents in the history of Hebrew printing.” Stern commented that the Talmud “changed and revolutionized the way Jews studied this book.” The Talmud was the treasure of Lunzer’s collection; it took him 25 years to convince Westminster Abbey in London, who owned it for centuries to sell it.

Lunzer first discovered the set in 1956 during an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert museum celebrating the 300th anniversary of Jews returning to Britain however, Westminster was unwilling to sell the Talmud set. The British government, however, was trying to block the sale by a New York auction house of the Abbey’s 900-year-old charter dated December 28, 1065. Lunzer was able to purchase the copy of the charter, and he offered it up as a trade to which Westminster Abbey agreed. Lunzer finally acquired the Talmud set in 1980, and there had been a ceremony celebrating the occasion in the Abbey’s Jerusalem Chamber. The Talmud is valued at $5.7 million, but it was sold for $9.3 million, Sotheby’s said it was “a new world auction record for any piece of Judaica.”

The second most valuable item in the collection and was sold in the Dec. 22 auction was the Hebrew Bible from England, the Pentateuch with Haftarot and the Five Scrolls, called by Lunzer Codex Valmadonna I. The handwritten text was created in 1189 in York, a year before the destruction of the Jewish community there were most of their books were looted and sold to Jews abroad. After the coronation of Richard I in September 1189, first Christians began rioting against the Jewish community in London and then spreading all throughout the country, York being the “culmination.” The Pentateuch is the only known surviving Hebrew text from the time before King Edward I expelled the Jewish community from the country in 1290. The text was dated 15 Tammuz 4949, 2 July 1189. The Bible was estimated to sell for between $2 and $4 million and did not disappoint selling at a just over $3.6 million.

Still, the Library acquired many important and rare books from the collection. According to the National Library, part of their collection will be “an incunabula of the Pentateuch, printed in Lisbon in 1491; one of only two surviving copies of a Passover Haggadah printed in Prague in 1556; An Ashkenaz Siddur printed in Venice on parchment in 1549; The Plantin Polyglot or “King’s Bible,” printed in Antwerp between 1568 and 1573; and more than 550 broadsheets dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries.”

The collector Jack Lunzer was a British industrial diamond merchant. Lunzer was born in 1924 in Antwerp, Belgium, but he grew up in London, England. Lunzer had been suffering dementia for years, and he died in December 2016 at 92. Lunzer amassed the single largest library of Hebrew manuscripts during the last seven decades; no other collection at any institution rivals it. Lunzer was not the originator of the library, his wife Ruth Zippel’s family was, and they acquired almost all the Hebrew books printed in 16th century Italy in the early 20th century. Lunzer and his wife took the collection hidden in a Milan basement during World War II to London in 1948 after they married.

The trust incorporated in Liechtenstein technically owns and controls the collection. Since Lunzer started suffering dementia, the trustees have control of the collection. His eldest daughter, Margaret Rothem and his other four grown daughters are the beneficiaries, but they did not have an official say as to the library’s fate.

At the end of World War II, when Lunzer started to build and expand the library, there were only a few hundred books. At the time, Lunzer collected the books, mostly in the 1960s and 70s, they were quite cheap, he amassed them through auctions, book sales, and many came from purchasing the collection of his former liturgy teacher, Solomon Sassoon. The library is named after a small Italian town with a connection to the Zippel family. Italy is considered “the cradle of Hebrew printing.” Lunzer took 50 years to create his collection that he kept in his London home and organized by region published, before their 2009 move to Sotheby’s.

The collection originally compromised 13,000 books and manuscripts all in Hebrew, and it represents millennia of the history of Hebrew manuscripts. Among the types of manuscripts and books in the library are “Mishnaot, Siddurim, Haggadot, Alef-bet tables, and ephemera,” some of which are printed on rare “blue paper, vellum, and silk.” There are 1,500 different Haggadot alone in the collection. Well used the books and manuscripts were hardly in mint condition when purchased. Lunzer wanted to make his books as perfect, and he purchased multiple copies as possible and rebound them. Sotheby’s described the library as “boasting rarities dating from the 10th century to the early 20th century from Italy, Holland, England, Greece, Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, India, and China, documenting the spread of the Hebrew press and the dissemination of Jewish culture around the globe.”

The majority of the books come from Italy, Spain, Turkey, Portugal, and Amsterdam, medieval Jewish centers, where scholarship flowed. Most of the manuscripts were created on vellum or silk paper, the illuminated ones are decorated with gold leaf, have painted scenes or “intricate borders and illustrations.” The earliest codex in the entire collection is a Franco-German copy of the Pentateuch written in an Ashkenazic script during the tenth or eleventh century,” which also happens to be “one of the earliest texts of the Five Books of Moses written anywhere in Europe.” Rothem describes the library as her father’s “life’s work.” Since his wife died in 1978, it preoccupied him for than anything else, and he often studied their meanings.

The books reveal more than just a history of Hebrew manuscript, but also delineate Jewish history for the last thousand years. The gaps in time and geographical areas show as the New York Times pointed out “implicitly mark periods of decline,” where Jewish communities were “exterminated” or their books burned. Lunzer specifically looked to recount Sephardic Jewish history, the expulsion from Spain to Italy and then the Ottoman Empire and Amsterdam. Christopher de Hamel, the former head of Sotheby’s Western Manuscripts division, commented to Tablet in 2009, “You suddenly begin to glimpse what it means to gather the written Jewish heritage.”

The library possessed “nearly half” of the 140 incunable books from early 15th-century printing and two-third of Hebrew books printed in the latter half of the 16th century. Sotheby’s describes, “The term “incunable” comes from the Latin for swaddling clothes or cradle and is applied to books produced during the “infancy” of Western typographic printing.” Although printing began in 15th century Germany, Germans would not allow Jews in the guilds and work the printing presses, and therefore only when printing came to Italy and Rome did Jews began printing Hebrew books using even the “same print shops” as their Christian counterparts.

The early Hebrew printing shops were located in Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula, before the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492. The early books included primarily religious texts; Bibles, and legal texts and Biblical exegesis, but some secular texts as well. The Valmadonna Library includes the last printed Hebrew Bible in Spain before the expulsion. The library is not just compromised of religious Hebrew texts, but also “Latin books by Jewish authors and Christian texts of Jewish interest.” The majority of Jewish texts, however, were religious, and read and studied often, Jewish texts had an additional problem Christians censored or burned their books, making the sheer number the Valmadonna Library has from that era that more incredible.

The library has been at Sotheby’s since 2009 when Lunzer first tried to sell it as a whole. It was exhibited there and available to scholars organized by country of origin as it had been in Lunzer’s home. At the 2009 exhibit, 4,000 people visited it each day of a 10-day exhibit in February. Sotheby’s tried to auction the entire collection twice before resorting to breaking up the collection and auctioning off the most prized items in December 2015. In 2009, Sotheby’s tried to sell the collection with an asking price of $40 million and again in 2011 for a price of $25 million.

There were two caveats for its sale at the time, the collection could not be broken up, and it had to be accessible to scholars. Lunzer said at the time, “I would like our library to be acquired by the Library of Congress. That would be my great joy.” Lunzer also had expressed, “It would be the crown of the Library of Congress to have these things, and for the Jewish community in America. The world would gasp.”

The collection has always been too expensive and expansive for any person or institution to purchase in its entirety. Sotheby’s came close once to selling the whole collection twice. In 2010, there was an anonymous bidder “who met or exceeded the base asking price of $25 million,” but the sale fell through because they would not abide by the two stipulations. Many institutions have tried over the years to purchase the library. The Library of Congress wanted to purchase the collection back in 2002 offering $20 million just as Lunzer had hoped for the 350th anniversary of Jews arriving in America. Accounts varied about the sale’s collapse, from financial backers withdrawing funds to the trust asking more money.

Individual collectors might have the money, but do not have the space to house such a large library in its entirety. The senior Judaica consultant at Sotheby’s Sharon Liberman Mintz told the Forward the size “has made it difficult for any one person to absorb. And for the institutions, it was a big sum of money.” Sotheby’s and the trustees decided the only way to sell the library was by breaking it up. Redden said, “I think people respect the fact that we tried to sell the collection as a unit.”

Scholars have been worried about the Valmadonna Library since it was transferred to Sotheby’s in 2009. The new sale does nothing to elevate scholars’ concerns, since key items from the collection have been already sold, and it is still broken up in the deal. When Sotheby’s auctioned off some the most important books in the collection, academics were concerned about it being sold separately and saw it as a loss for further research.

Brad Sabin Hill, the curator of the I. Edward Kiev Judaica Collection at George Washington University, spoke to the Forward in December 2015. Sabin Hill lamented, “It would be a terrible loss to the Hebrew booklore to have the rest of the printed book collection dispersed. I would consider that to be unfortunate.” Commenting in 2010 to the Forward David Stern, a professor of Classic Hebrew Literature at the University of Pennsylvania also criticized the dispersion of the collection. Professor Stern said, “While we do not yet know what will happen to the library, its possible disappearance as an integral collection would be a colossal loss to Jewish culture.”

The sale in December 2015 ended the complete access to 12 of the most prized books when nine of the manuscripts were sold. The nine books in Sotheby’s auction represented the “rarest and highest-priced books” of the collection. Scholars, who had been conducting research, lost access to these books, but it is not only a loss to them but also the entire academic community. Although the majority of the collection was sold to the National Library of Israel, a research institution, scholars still lost access to many important and rare books and manuscripts from the collection, severely hampering research into the history of books, but also the Jewish history of the times.

The books have arrived in Israel in February, but will not be visible to the public for another three years. The National Library of Israel plans to put the collection on display in 2020 after their new building is completed. Currently, the new structure is under construction and will be located next to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Before the collection can be exhibited it will be cataloged in the intervening time. In 2020, the National Library is planning an event for the collection’s opening to the public. Although the library is missing some of the treasures, Lunzer would have found it reassuring that the majority of his collection ended up in a Jewish institution that values the historical relevancy of the books and will make sure future generations of scholars have access to these important books vital to Jewish history.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store