The Codex Sassoon, the world’s oldest near-complete Hebrew bible, is set to go under the hammer at auction later this year and could sell for up to $50 million. If it achieves this price, it will become the “most valuable historical document ever sold at auction”. You better get saving those pennies.
The Codex is said to date to the late 9th or early 10th century CE, perhaps around the year 900 CE. Exceptionally for a copy this age, it contains all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible and is missing just a few "leaves" of text.
This age means it’s older than the earliest complete Hebrew Bible, the Leningrad Codex, by almost a century.
The Codex Sassoon has been on a bunch of worldly adventures over the centuries. Manuscripts show how the Codex was sold by a man called Khalaf ben Abraham to Isaac ben Ezekiel al-Attar in the early 11th century CE.
By the 13th century, the book was dedicated to the synagogue of Makisin in present-day Syria. However, the town was obliterated shortly after, most likely by the Mongol Empire in the 13th century or the Timurid Empire in 1400, and the Codex was given to Salama bin Abi al-Fakhr for safekeeping. They promised to return it to the synagogue when it was rebuilt, but that time never came.
The following six centuries of history are hazy, but the Codex eventually resurfaced in 1929 when it was purchased by British collector David Solomon Sassoon who had assembled the most prominent private collections of Jewish artifacts in the world.
Currently, the document is in the collection of Jacqui Safra, a member of the prominent Brazilian-Syrian-Lebanese Jewish banking family. In the next chapter of its story, the artifact will be sold at an auction organized by Sotheby’s New York on May 16.
“Codex Sassoon has long held a revered and fabled place in the pantheon of surviving historic documents and is undeniably one of the most important and singular texts in human history,” Richard Austin, Sotheby’s Global Head of Books & Manuscripts, said in a statement.
“With such eminence, the Codex has an incomparable presence and gravitas that can only be borne from more than one thousand years of history,” explained Austin.
Describing it as "one of the world’s greatest treasures", Sotheby's estimates it could sell from somewhere between $30 million to $50 million.
If it tips towards the higher end of this price range, it will become the most expensive historical document ever sold, beating the first printing of the US Constitution that sold at Sotheby’s in November 2021 for $43 million.
“In Codex Sassoon, a monumental transformation in the history of the Hebrew Bible is revealed, bringing to light the full story of the Hebrew Bible that had previously never been presented in book form. Codex Sassoon marks a critical turning point in how we perceive the history of the Divine word across thousands of years, and is a transformative witness to how the Hebrew Bible has influenced the pillars of civilization – art, culture, law, politics – for centuries,” added Sharon Liberman Mintz, Sotheby’s Senior Judaica Specialist in the Books & Manuscripts Department.