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Questions About the Mishneh Torah Purchase

The prize piece in the Steinhardt Judaica collection doesn’t go to auction

Adam Chandler
April 29, 2013

Earlier today, a landmark Judaica collection belonging to philanthropist and hedge-funder Michael Steinhardt’s Judaica collection went up for auction at Sotheby’s. What constitutes a landmark Judaica collection? Last week, Jeannie Rosenfeld broke it down for us:

Given issues of scarcity and authenticity in Judaica, the sheer availability of so much pedigreed material makes this Sotheby’s sale a rare event. Steinhardt is selling what museum consultant Gabriel Goldstein called “the very strongest pieces,” which are often sold off before collections come to auction. The sale also includes a large number of early pieces, more than 100 from the 18th century or earlier, compared with just a few at most in a typical sale. Another leading collector, the U.S.-born, Israel-based Bill Gross, adds that even mid-range items are in many cases “the finest examples of their genre.”

Notwithstanding the lineup of star lots, led by a lavishly illustrated 15th-century manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, a companion to a volume in the Vatican, there is a broad range of estimates, starting at $200-$300. Roughly two-thirds of the lots carry estimates below $10,000, despite steadily rising prices in the field over the last two decades.

As it turns out, that 15th-century Mishneh Torah never made it auction. Instead, it was jointly purchased by the the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for an undisclosed amount before the bidding even began.

Sound like standard operating procedure for the art world, nu? Arts writer Lee Rosenbaum sees very exquisite smoke in the deal:

If there were ever an object that should have been given, rather than sold, to the Israel Museum, this is it.

Although it must have known more than it let on to those who attended its presale exhibition, Sotheby’s announcement that its cover lot was being withdrawn from the sale wasn’t made until this morning, hitting my inbox just an hour before the auction’s 10 a.m. start. As the preeminent attraction of the presale exhibition, it may have helped generate increased bidding interest in collection’s less stellar offerings.

So was placing the Mishneh Torah a charade to inflate the importance of the rest of the Steinhardt catalogue? Mayhaps. But the other detail of interest was how it became a joint acquisition.

Steinhardt had told me Friday that the Met, to which he has loaned antiquities, was also interested in the manuscript. From that perhaps I should have predicted in my previous post that the Met would become a joint-acquirer. (I did predict that the work would be withdrawn from the sale for transfer to the Israel Museum.) The two-state solution just hadn’t occurred to me.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.

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