Codex Sassoon purchaser sees it up close for the first time

Published date02 June 2023
Two weeks earlier, Moses had paid a record-setting sum for the book — more than $38 million in total. But this was the first time he had ever seen it

The book was the Codex Sassoon, the world's oldest nearly-complete copy of the Hebrew Bible, and Moses had purchased it on behalf of the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. That morning, in Sotheby's Upper East Side office, Sharon Mintz, the auction house's senior Judaica specialist, was giving Moses and some of his relatives a history lesson on his new acquisition.

Mintz turned the pages with clean, bare hands, noting the scored ruling between the lines of text and the thickness of the parchment pages — made somewhat thinner in places where scribes scratched over each others' notes. Before Moses bought the book at a much-anticipated Sotheby's auction on May 17, the codex passed between multiple owners — most recently through the hands of Jacqui Safra, a member of the prominent banking family, and before him, in the 1920s, Jewish book collector David Solomon Sassoon.

It will now be housed at the ANU Museum, which exhibited the codex earlier this year.

"It's an inspiring book, to see a 1,200 year old manuscript in perfect [condition] — even that we can read today — it's quite amazing," Moses said. "It has the vowels and the trope … it's remarkable. It's something that's been preserved for 1,200 years. And we're the beneficiaries of it."

Moses is an attorney who served as US ambassador to Romania during the Clinton administration and is a past president of the American Jewish Committee. He had anxiously watched the auction online from his home in Washington, DC, worried that another possible bidder, like the Bible Museum, also in Washington, might put in a competitive bid. Representatives from the American Friends of ANU, which supports the museum, were concerned it might wind up in a private collection, and could be lost to public view for another generation.

"I thought my chances were about 50/50," Moses said. "But I was prepared to buy it if I could afford to."

He expected to pay as much as $32.5 million, which he put in as an "irrevocable bid" with Sotheby's ahead of the auction, according to Bloomberg. He ended up inching his bid up to $33.5 million after someone else bid $33 million. Fees brought his final tab to $38.1 million.

Putting the codex on display

Part of the reason he decided to give the book to ANU — an institution he has supported for years, including as chair of its honorary board —...

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