A Hebrew Bible more than 1,000 years old sold for US$38.1 million in New York on Wednesday, setting a record for the most valuable manuscript ever sold at auction.
The Codex Sassoon — which dates to the late ninth to early 10th century — is the earliest near-complete Hebrew Bible known to still exist.
It was sold by Sotheby’s following a four-minute bidding battle between two bidders, the auction house said in a statement.
The Bible was bought by former US diplomat Alfred Moses on behalf of an American nonprofit that will gift it to the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sotheby’s said.
“The Hebrew Bible is the most influential book in history and constitutes the bedrock of Western civilization. I rejoice in knowing that it belongs to the Jewish People,” said Moses, an ambassador under president Bill Clinton.
The sale surpassed the US$30.8 million that Microsoft founder Bill Gates paid for Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester manuscript in 1994 as the most expensive handwritten document ever sold at auction.
The most expensive historical document remains one of the first prints of the US Constitution, which Sotheby’s sold for US$43 million in November 2021.
The Codex Sassoon is one of only two codices, or manuscripts, containing all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible to have survived into the modern era.
It is substantially more complete than the Aleppo Codex and older than the Leningrad Codex, two other famous early Hebrew Bibles, Sotheby’s said.
The manuscript bridges the Dead Sea Scrolls — which date back as early as the third century BC — and today’s modernly accepted form of the Hebrew Bible.
It is named for previous owner David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942) who assembled the most significant private collection of ancient Jewish texts in the world.
The manuscript was auctioned for the first time in more than 30 years and had a pre-sale estimate of between US$30 million and US$50 million.
The Codex Sassoon, which has moved about throughout its history, has only been presented once in the past to the public, in 1982, at the British Library in London, said Orit Shaham-Gover, chief curator of the Museum of the Jewish People.
According to carbon-14 dating, the Codex Sassoon is older and more complete than the Aleppo, written in Galilee in the 10th century and brought to Israel in the 1950s after being found in that Syrian city.
The manuscript is also considered to predate the Leningrad Codex, the oldest surviving copy of the Hebrew Bible text in its entirety, and dated to the early eleventh century.