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Treasure Trove

How is it that one of the greatest collections of Hebraica ever assembled can’t find a home?

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The Valmadonna Trust Library exhibited at Sotheby’s earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.)

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The story of one of the greatest coups in the history of book collecting began, as it happens, with a mistake. In 1956, an industrial diamond dealer and bibliophile named Jack Lunzer convinced a guard at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to let him leaf through several early Hebrew books on loan from Westminster Abbey for a show celebrating the tercentenary of Jews’ readmission to Britain, in 1656, after their expulsion in 1290 by King Edward I. Lunzer quickly noticed the books had been mislabeled; one, it turned out, contained pages from the Babylonian Talmud printed by Daniel Bomberg, a Christian from Venice who was the first to issue a complete edition of the work, starting in 1520. Curiosity led Lunzer back to Westminster Abbey, where he discovered all nine volumes of Bomberg’s masterwork had lain hidden for centuries behind layers of dust—a perfectly preserved copy of the most valuable Talmud in the world.

Over the next 20 years, Lunzer trawled auctions and book sales, amassing loose pages, or tractates, to recreate his own Bomberg set while also buying up other early Hebrew manuscripts and printed books from across Europe to add to a small collection his wife had inherited from her parents in Italy. But the Westminster Bomberg never relinquished its hold on his imagination and, every now and then, he’d call the Abbey to ask the librarian if he would consider selling it. Each time, Lunzer was informed that the Talmud was not for sale. Not, that was, until April of 1980, when Lunzer happened to spot an item in the Daily Telegraph concerning efforts by the British government to block the private sale of a copy of the Abbey’s foundation charter to a prominent New York book dealer who had acquired copies of everything from the Gutenberg Bible to the Louisiana Purchase. Lunzer realized the charter, dated December 28, 1065, was the ultimate bargaining chip. Within weeks, he had arranged his deal: he bought back the charter for the Abbey, and in return, the Abbey sold him their Talmud. A ceremony to mark the occasion was held in the Abbey’s Jerusalem Chamber.

The Bomberg Talmud immediately became the cornerstone of Lunzer’s private collection, called the Valmadonna Trust Library after a town in Italy’s Piedmont region where his wife’s family had ties. Today, the collection encompasses more than 13,000 early Hebrew books, manuscripts, and broadsides—an exhaustive array of Mishnaot, siddurim, Haggadot, alef-bet tables, and ephemera that includes rare items printed on blue paper, vellum, and silk. As a collector, Lunzer’s goal was to illustrate Jewish history, primarily the Sephardic flight eastward from Spain through Italy to the Ottoman Empire, by assembling as much as possible of “the great jigsaw puzzle” of texts produced in workshops from Lisbon to Calcutta starting in the 15th century. It ranks among the greatest collections of Hebraica ever assembled by a single individual, and is one of the finest libraries of any kind assembled in contemporary Britain by a collector who is still living.

“You suddenly begin to glimpse what it means to gather the written Jewish heritage,” said Christopher de Hamel, a Cambridge professor and former head of Sotheby’s Western Manuscripts division. “It’s utterly, utterly dazzling.”

But now, after six decades of collecting, Lunzer is attempting to engineer what may be a feat greater even than his Bomberg coup: the $40 million sale of the Valmadonna in the midst of the worst economic and fiscal collapse in generations. In January, the collection was moved from Fairport, Lunzer’s mansion in London’s Golders Green, to Sotheby’s headquarters in New York, where it was exhibited for 10 days. Thousands of people waited hours in the February cold to see the full collection on display, arranged according to city of origin: Alexandria, Amsterdam, Baghdad, Bombay, and so on, a map of a lost Jewish world preserved in bound pages, despite the ravages of time and the best efforts of centuries of book-burners. But in the months since, there has been virtual silence from potential buyers. “There are people who call up non-stop asking about the collection,” said Sotheby’s vice-chairman David Redden, but as yet there have been no serious offers.

Later this month, Lunzer will turn 85, and he seems increasingly desperate to ensure the integrity of the collection—which he describes as his “baby”—rather than risk that it gets sold off in pieces after his death. “Time is running out,” he told Tablet in a recent interview. “I hope it’s not too late.” There are, he knows, only a handful of likely buyers, but Lunzer isn’t shy about telling people which one he most hopes steps forward: the Library of Congress. What few people know is that it came close to buying the Valmadonna once before, in 2002. At the time, the Library offered terms that would have allowed Lunzer’s collection to remain both intact and accessible to the public. The question now is whether a deal can still be struck.

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Lunzer, an inveterate charmer and raconteur, has spent his life brokering precious, rare commodities. He was born in 1924 in Antwerp, where his British father worked a diamond dealer for De Beers, but grew up in London and spent the years of the Second World War working in a Spitfire engine factory, making diamond tools. After the war, he went to work for his father, but young Lunzer, frustrated by the treatment he received when he went to the offices of the De Beers monopoly, decided to start his own firm, the Industrial Diamond Company, and took over his father’s business in 1949. Over the years, Lunzer secured monopolies for industrial diamonds throughout West Africa and into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). By the early 1980s, he had $100 million in annual sales and the exclusive rights to a diamond mining venture in Guinea, along with the honorary title of Guinea consul-general in London.

In 1948, at 23, Lunzer married Ruth Zippel, the Italian-born daughter of a Polish merchant. After the war, her brothers discovered their father’s small collection of Hebrew books had survived concealed in a Milan basement; they asked the newlyweds to take them to London. “The books weren’t terribly important and the condition wasn’t marvelous, but nevertheless I said, ‘Certainly,’” Lunzer explained. After a few years, Lunzer told his brothers-in-law he was going to send the books back to Milan; instead, his brothers-in-law agreed to turn over title to Ruth and her children. At the time, Lunzer said, he was beginning to invest in racehorses; he had no plans to get on with the books. But one day, he said, one of his daughters, Myra, asked at breakfast whether the horses were running that day. “I said that was it for me, and phoned the manager and said, ‘Sell my interest in these three horses,’” Lunzer recalled. “You cannot bring up Jewish children on racehorses.”

As a young boy, Lunzer—whose grandfather, Julius, was the founding president of the Adath Yisroel Synagogue, part of the resurgence of British Orthodoxy in the early 20th century—had studied liturgy with Solomon Sassoon, scion of one of Britain’s greatest Jewish collecting families, and was an avid amateur bibliographer. With the seed of his wife’s collection—technically owned by a trust incorporated in Liechtenstein—Lunzer began frequenting book sales. In the early years, book collecting, especially of Hebrew printed books, was a specialty job; there weren’t many of them, and those that appeared on the market tended to be in bad shape, compared to Latin books of similar vintage. “Hebrew books don’t survive in perfect copies,” said Brad Sabin Hill, curator of the Kiev Judaica Collection at George Washington University, who first met Lunzer in the early 1980s and has worked extensively with the Valmadonna collection. “These books were studied intensely under normal circumstances, and unlike Christian books preserved in monastic libraries or national libraries, they moved around all the time.” Lunzer benefited from big sales in the 1970s, including of the Sassoon collection, at a time when book prices were still quite low. “He was fortunate in the 1960s and 1970s that the books were cheap,” said Pauline Malkiel, the Valmadonna’s librarian since 1982. “This is a one-man collection, and nobody could put it together now.”

By the time Lunzer struck the deal for the Bomberg Talmud, in 1980, he had become part of the fraternity of men, many of them ultra-Orthodox, who turned up at book sales to shout at each other in Yiddish as they competed for the best items. At around the same time, people who found themselves priced out of the skyrocketing art market began to take a renewed interest in books; prices were steadily bid up from the low four figures into five- and six-figure calls, or even higher for manuscripts. Lunzer, who had made a practice of buying duplicates in order to assemble copies of books that were as close to perfect as possible, fed the craze by having all his books lavishly re-bound by Bernard Middleton, one of Britain’s pre-eminent antiquarian binders. (Several people who know the collection well remarked on the unusual smell of Valmadonna leather; one said it’s possible to identify a book that had been through Fairport, even years later, by sniffing the binding.)

Today, the value of the collection rests mainly in the Bomberg Talmud and a copy of an English Pentateuch manuscript from 1189. A sale last December at Sotheby’s, overseen by Redden, fetched $2.25 million—more than double the high estimate—for an incomplete Bomberg Talmud, inflating the value of Lunzer’s flawless Westminster copy. But the value of the whole may be less than the sum of its parts, if no buyer steps forward with an offer for the entire collection. As one person familiar with the Valmadonna put it, “The library was priceless, and so now it’s twice priceless.” Of course, Lunzer, having devoted his life to the project of building Valmadonna—which he refers to as “Val,” joking that he can do without the “Madonna”—is loath to imagine it being undone, and the collection being sold piecemeal as others before have been, from the Montefiore collection to the holdings of Britain’s Jew’s College Library and the London Beth Din. “The history of Hebrew libraries has been a very mixed one, with a lot of pillaging and mistakes,” he explained at Fairport. “I treasure every one of these books that Val has, and I’d be mad with grief if anything should happen.” But Lunzer is technically only the custodian of the library; the books belong to the trust, whose sole beneficiaries, he said, are his five grown daughters, and it will be the trustees who have the final say. (Martin Paisner, a London attorney who advises the trustees, referred questions to Sotheby’s.) “The trust is firm that it stay together, and we are doing our best to accomplish that,” said Redden. But, he added, the trust will ultimately need to liquidate its assets—the library—however it can. “It has beneficiaries who need to be dealt with,” Redden said. “It’s not going to keep these books forever.”

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Even without the recession, the Valmadonna sale would have been a challenge. Few, if any, private buyers are able or willing to take on the responsibility of housing and preserving such a vast collection, let alone of hiring a librarian to watch over it, as Lunzer has done for decades. (Members of the Safra family visited Fairport in the late 1990s to inspect the collection, but decided against making the purchase because, Lunzer explained, “it wasn’t their field.”) That leaves institutions, but many of the likely candidates already have substantial collections of Hebraica that rival the holdings of the Valmadonna. The British Library and the Bodleian, at Oxford University, both hold copies of the Bomberg Talmud, and Lunzer quipped, “Britain doesn’t need it.” The decision to send the books to New York reflects his belief that the eventual buyer will be found in the United States, where Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania are most often mentioned as plausible suitors. “The fact is that any university, for example, that acquired the Valmadonna would immediately have by far the best collection of Judaica of anyone,” Redden said. But Lunzer, in repeated conversations, said he doesn’t want just anyone to have his books. “It would be the crown of the Library of Congress to have these things, and for the Jewish community in America,” he insisted. “The world would gasp.”

The idea of bringing the Valmadonna to Washington originated with the current librarian, James Billington, who has made a practice of actively canvassing the world for potential acquisitions. Billington first approached Lunzer about the Valmadonna a decade ago, a few years before the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews in America, in 2004—an auspicious time to begin fundraising for a monumental Hebraica collection. By 2002, the Library of Congress had raised $20 million, entirely from private donors, to buy the Valmadonna and refurbish a balcony overlooking the central rotunda reading room to give the core of the collection pride of place. “It would have been a great coup for American Jewry to have this thing cemented in that place,” said Hill, who was not involved in the negotiations. “The central document in the relationship between America and its Jews is George Washington’s communication with the Jewish community of Newport at the founding of this nation, and this is the only thing that would have had similar centrality. It was out of this world.”

Accounts of why the deal collapsed vary. According to Lunzer, some donors withdrew their commitments at the last minute for their own personal financial reasons. One person with knowledge of the negotiations said the problem lay with the trust’s decision to push the asking price higher once the initial $20 million had been raised—a move that could have looked like bad faith to an institution accustomed to receiving outright gifts, rather than having to buy its treasures. Fiona Scharf, one of Lunzer’s daughters, told Tablet that the Library, in the end, simply failed to raise sufficient funds for the purchase, but declined to elaborate. What is clear is that everyone involved was left disappointed. Billington, according to several people familiar with the affair, “got burned” and “was livid, absolutely livid.” (Billington declined to be interviewed for this article.) Lunzer, for his part, professes to similar disappointment over what he refers to variously as “the slip” and “the hiccup.”

Nonetheless, Lunzer insists the Library of Congress is still his dream home for the Valmadonna. He provided Tablet with a letter Billington sent more than a year ago, in January 2008, indicating that he was still open to negotiations. “We are still interested in the Valmadonna Collection,” Billington wrote. But, he added, “the linchpin to further discussions—once the export approval is granted—will be the negotiation of a price, terms that both parties can accept, and the willingness of new donors to provide the funds.” (In February, Billington told a Bloomberg reporter that Valmadonna “would find a great home here.”) One view of the decision to ship the entire Valmadonna collection across the Atlantic, without a firm buyer, is that it was an effort to entice the Library back to the table; another is that it was done with an eye to reigniting the interest of possible donors. The exhibit last winter—which marked the first time the collection had been displayed in its entirety—was designed by Sotheby’s as a marketing exercise, and succeeded wildly in attracting attention not just in the Jewish world but in the art world as well.

Lunzer admitted he had not spoken to Billington recently, but insisted that a deal could still be struck. “It’s not entirely a question of money—it’s a question of finding the right home for it,” Lunzer said. “For the sake of Judaism, and the role of Judaism in the United States, this library is a must for the Library of Congress.” Potential donors, he said, should think of it as a “way that the Jewish community as a whole can somehow express their gratitude” to America. “Nobody wants to see it broken up, but if they don’t put their act together, the Jewish community and the library…” he trailed off. What then? Unlike an auction, the private sale of Valmadonna is in principle open-ended, but Lunzer insisted, repeatedly, that if the library is not sold in the next year, he will bring it home to Fairport—where, for now, Sotheby’s has installed photographs of the books on the library shelves, a trompe l’oeil that gives the illusion Val is still there. “Après moi, le déluge,” Lunzer said, looking around the lounge at the images of the Bomberg Talmud, which once sat in pride of place behind a grille, near a table adorned with a photograph of Ruth, who died in 1978. “I suppose if worse comes to worst, everything will come back here. I can’t tell you what happens afterwards.”

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Treasure Trove

How is it that one of the greatest collections of Hebraica ever assembled can’t find a home?

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