Thank you, E.T. Very moving. I wish Mr., Lunzer would just donate his collection to a worthy cause. DS
A Lifetime's Collection of Texts in Hebrew, at Sotheby's
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/r/edward_rothstein/index.html?inline=nyt-per>
Is bibliophilia a religious impulse? You can't walk into Sotheby's exhibition space in Manhattan right now and not sense the devotion or be swept up in its passions and particularities. The 2,400-square-foot opening gallery is lined with shelves - 10 high - reaching to the ceiling, not packed tight, but with occasional books open to view. Each shelf is labeled, not with a subject, but with a city or town of origin: Amsterdam, Paris, Leiden, Izmir, Bombay, Cochin, Cremona, Jerusalem, Ferrara, Calcutta, Mantua, Shanghai, Alexandria, Baghdad and on and on.
You can't read these books or pluck them from the shelves. But you feel their presence as you explore, particularly in adjoining rooms where volumes are open inside cases for closer scrutiny.
These 13,000 books and manuscripts were primarily collected by one man, Jack V. Lunzer, who was born in Antwerp in 1924, lives in London and made his fortune as a merchant of industrial diamonds. The collection's geographical scale is matched by its temporal breadth, which extends over a millennium. But this endeavor is not just an exercise in bibliophilia. These are all books written in Hebrew or using Hebrew script, many of them rare or even unique. Most come from the earliest centuries of Hebrew printing in their places of origins and thus map out a history of the flourishing of Jewish communities around the world.
The collection's historical gaps and boundaries are also revealing because they often implicitly mark periods of decline, which, we learn elsewhere, often meant public conflagrations of copies of these very books or even exterminations of the communities themselves.
The collection, named after the Italian town that Mr. Lunzer's family has long been associated with, is known as the Valmadonna Trust Library. Sotheby's has put it on sale as a single collection. Through next Thursday it is being handsomely displayed to the public, while luring the large institutional libraries and collectors who might be prepared to pay at least $40 million for what Sotheby's, echoing scholars in the field, describes as "the finest private library of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world."
There are extraordinary items on display here, including a Hebrew Bible handwritten in England in 1189 - the only dated Hebrew text from England before King Edward I expelled the Jews in 1290. In 1190, the Jewish community of York was massacred and its property, including many books and manuscripts, was looted and sold abroad, where this volume was discovered.
There is also an exquisitely preserved edition of the Babylonian Talmud (1519-23) made by the Christian printer Daniel Bomberg in Venice, an edition created with the advice of a panel of scholars that codified many aspects of how the Talmud is displayed and printed. This set made its way into the collection of Westminster Abbey, where Mr. Lunzer saw it, covered with dust, perhaps untouched for centuries. He ultimately acquired it in a trade, offering a 900-year-old copy of the Abbey's original Charter.
There is also a 12th-century scroll of the Hebrew Pentateuch that came from the Samaritans, a Jewish sect that still exists in Nablus on the West Bank, their ancient Hebrew script resembling inscriptions on archaeological finds rather than the letters that came to define mainstream Hebrew.
And there are manuscripts of almost voluptuous variety: a 19th-century copy of "A Thousand and One Nights" from Calcutta, its Arabic spelled out in Hebrew script; the first scientific work printed in Portugal in 1496 by Abraham Zacuto, a Jewish astrologer and mathematician; an early-20th-century manuscript from Pakistan with Hebrew and Marathi on facing pages - a guide for ritual slaughterers.
Many volumes are prayer books or rabbinic commentaries, but seen here the collection becomes a reflection of almost doctrinal bibliophilia.
"Make books your companions" read the words of a 12th-century Spanish Jewish scholar, Judah Ibn Tibbon, translated on one gallery wall. "Let your bookshelves be your gardens."
Another gallery is inscribed with a blessing written by a Jewish scholar from 16th-century Prague, David Gans, that may be unique in the world's religions: "Blessed be He... Who has magnified His grace with a great invention, one that is useful for all inhabitants of the world, there is none beside it, and nothing can equal it among all wisdoms and inventions since God created man on the earth: The Printing Press."
We know of the printing press as a German invention, whose first use was the printing of a Bible by Johannes Gutenberg. But Jews were not allowed into German printing guilds, so they flourished in Italy, beginning in Rome in 1470 and then in other towns where licenses to publish Hebrew books were granted and revoked on the whim of local rulers. In Cremona, Hebrew printing lasted only about 10 years until the 1560s. Every one of the Hebrew books printed there in that era, Mr. Lunzer says, is represented here.
But so close was Jewish devotion to the printing press and its progeny that in some places Jews were pioneers in its use. We are told that the first book ever printed in Turkey is here, a 1493 copy of Jacob ben Asher's code of Jewish law, "Arba'ah Turim." So too, the exhibition says, is the first book ever printed in Africa - a Hebrew book about prayer from 1516 Fez. Testifying to the migrations is a polyglot Pentateuch (1547), from Constantinople, its Spanish and Greek translations written using Hebrew script.
Whatever institution ends up purchasing this assemblage will acquire a resource that would now be impossible to buy piece by piece. The collection's rarity is even more extreme because of the traumatic history that accompanied these books. The Talmud alone, for example, has been subject to the most extreme purges. These legal texts were confiscated in Paris in 1240, in 1509 in Germany and burned in Italy by papal decree in 1553. In Venice one observer saw more than 1,000 complete copies go up in flames.
Other Hebrew books were also systematically destroyed, though in Italy some were permitted to survive if passages judged blasphemous by the Roman Catholic Church <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/r/roman_catholic_church/index.html?inline=nyt-org> were excised. A copy of one expurgated volume is displayed here.
"My age is upon me," Mr. Lunzer apologizes when I meet him to look over some of his books; he takes my arm to walk among the displays. The collection is personal, a reflection of his tastes and ambitions. Hebrew books of the Americas, he explains, never interested him. And the volumes of other regions were collected only within what he calls "strict parameters," bounded by the history of the various communities and their printers.
"Every one of these books I have held in my hands," he says, as we pause over the earliest dated and illustrated edition of the Passover <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/p/passover/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier> haggadah known to exist. It is from Prague, printed in 1526, and, Mr. Lunzer says, it made its way to him in London by first passing through Charleston, S.C.
"They're my friends," he says. Will he miss them? "I'll be happy if they are well kept and respected."
But each one, he says, could be printed only because of permission that was granted by others. "Every one of these books," he says with bibliophilic compassion, "is crying its own tears."
The exhibition of the Valmadonna Trust Library is on view through next Thursday at Sotheby's, 1334 York Avenue, at 72nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 606-7000.