The Codex Sassoon: a seismic moment in the auction rooms

- by Bruce E. McKinney

Paying serious money when collecting invariably involves passion, confidence and madness.  It sometimes affects single collectors and once in a great while a category of bidders.  Codex Sassoon is the perfect candidate for a bidding storm.  Categories and subjects of books and collectible paper have been periodically subject to intense desire.  It turns out Hebraica is having its moment in the sun.


Paramount among obtainable Judaica, the exceptionally important Codex Sassoon, an ancient bound, handwritten Hebrew Bible, will be sold at Sotheby’s New York on 16 May against estimates between $30,000,000 to $50,000,000.  It may well surpass the world record realization that was achieved in 2021 for a copy of the first printing of the United States Constitution from 1787 that brought $43,173,000.


This 792 page volume, thought to be older than Methuselah, is rather spry as it has been on a world tour this spring including stops in London and Jerusalem before settling down in New York.


It’s been in the rooms before.  The Sassoon family acquired it in 1929 for £350 and in 1978 Sotheby’s sold it for them for about $320,000 in Zurich to the British Rail Pension Fund.  In 1989, the Rail Trust resold it to Jacqui Safra for $3.19 million and his family is selling it in May.  Its value has been steadily rising.


While there are several other similarly early examples, they are held by institutions, Codex Sassoon is the most complete AND the only example that can be acquired while the others are locked up to be treasured.  Only the Dead Seas Scrolls and a few fragments are older.  So when will you have another opportunity to buy something like this?  History suggests you will be much older.  Reappearances and discoveries are measured in decades.


Over those decades ahead interest in collecting categories will wax and wane but some categories of material have proven remarkably resilient in market downturns.  Shakespeare’s early printings don’t have bad years.  George Washington’s letters and documents have held up very well, thank you.  Audubon’s double elephant folio is getting by.  Taking them together, I think it’s an easy case to make that the Sassoon Codex will outperform them.


And this needs to be said, not all investments are financial nor are the desired returns will be converted into currency.  The deep satisfaction of ownership for some may be life changing.


So as the sale approaches, investors, collectors of Hebraica and early Christian historiography, each moved by different motivations will be united in their interest in the sale of what the world is calling the opportunity to acquire the oldest Bible.  It is one of the earliest and most complete Hebrew Bibles known, dating to 800 AD.


For those who pursue Hebraica, ownership of celebrated texts and artifacts have long conveyed a sense of connection.  The Museum of the Bible conveys a similarly strong statement about personal Christian faith. 


As well there is a new factor.  We are living through an emerging era of emotional resonance that has been facilitated by the Internet.  We have been living through the information age and now are being immersed in emotional connection.  Those emotions are shifting personal priorities and personal connection.  Many who never thought about collecting may find themselves drawn to it.  The very spectacle of the sale may entice a few new names.


It’s going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity, an extraordinary event in any era.


We wish you all the best.