It’s been nearly two years since Sotheby’s announced the auction of one of the world’s greatest private collections of Hebraica: The Valmadonna Trust Library, an assemblage of more than 12,000 extremely rare Hebrew manuscripts and printed books, including a complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud previously owned by Westminster Abbey. This morning, Sotheby’s vice-chairman David Redden confirmed to Tablet Magazine that the auction house has quietly opened a sealed-bid auction, closing December 16, with a minimum asking price of $25 million—a potentially hefty discount from Sotheby’s earlier $30-50 million estimate of the library’s value. As currently offered, the library will be sold without any pre-conditions or covenants requiring that the library be kept intact or put on public display “I’m extremely hopeful,” Redden said in a phone call. “I think the way in which one is approaching this is extremely realistic.”
This sell-first approach marks a distinct strategic shift when it comes to the Valmadonna, whose creator, a London industrial-diamond dealer and bibliophile named Jack Lunzer, has spent the better part of the last decade trying quixotically to close a deal with the Library of Congress. Lunzer told me last year that he was hoping to rekindle interest from the institution, which would have offered the collection, and the record of European Jewish history that it embodies, pride of place in Washington, D.C. Above all, he was anxious to see his baby find a new home before his death, and to keep it intact. “Après moi, le déluge,” he told me.
It’s not clear how involved Lunzer was in the decision to accelerate the potential sale by putting a deadline on it; last year, he said he would bring it back to his North London estate, Fairport, if no buyers emerged by the end of this year. Now 86 and in poor health, Lunzer wasn’t immediately available to comment on the auction.
“Obviously, it would be wonderful if this does go to a public institution and is available to the public forever,” said Redden. He backed a high-profile exhibit of the collection in February 2009 at Sotheby’s Manhattan headquarters, which attracted long lines of book-lovers and observant Jews eager to see religious volumes that miraculously survived where Jewish communities did not. Can we imagine a future exhibit of the complete collection? We’ll see.
Previously: Treasure Trove [Tablet Magazine]