World’s Oldest Near-Complete Hebrew Bible Goes to Auction
The Codex Sassoon could break auction records, becoming the most valuable historical document ever sold
At more than 1,000 years old, the Codex Sassoon is the world’s earliest near-complete Hebrew Bible. Soon, it could also become the “most valuable historical document ever sold at auction,” according to a statement from Sotheby’s. The auction house expects to sell it for between $30 and $50 million in May.
Historians say a scribe wrote out the text on roughly 400 sheets of parchment in the late ninth or early tenth century. Eventually, the book landed at a synagogue in present-day Syria, which was then destroyed around the 13th or 14th century.
Notes in the codex indicate that its next steward was Salama bin Abi al-Fakhr, who was supposed to keep it safe until the synagogue was rebuilt. It wasn’t rebuilt—and the codex disappeared for the next 600 years.
It resurfaced in 1929, when British collector David Solomon Sassoon purchased it for £350, per the New York Times’ Jennifer Schuessler. The document, now named for the collector, remained with Sassoon’s heirs until 1978, when the British Rail Pension Fund purchased it for $320,000. It was sold for $3.19 million in 1989.
Today, Swiss collector Jacqui Safra owns it. Sotheby’s didn’t reveal why Safra has chosen to sell it now.
The 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,” says Richard Austin, Sotheby’s global head of books and manuscripts, in the auction house’s statement.
Protected in a simple brown leather binding added during the 20th century, the book weighs 26 pounds and measures 12 by 14 inches.
In addition to the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, the Codex Sassoon’s pages also include ownership records and detailed notes on how words should be written and recited.
“It’s a masterpiece of scribal art,” says Sharon Mintz, Sotheby’s senior Judaica specialist, to the Times. The book, she adds, “radiates both history and holiness.”
The Codex Sassoon is roughly a century older than the Leningrad Codex, the oldest entirely complete Hebrew Bible, per Sotheby’s. It’s closer in age to the Aleppo Codex, which dates to around 930—but it’s missing nearly two-fifths of its pages.
Sotheby’s experts landed on the $30 million to $50 million pre-auction estimate after two years of discussion that factored in the Codex Sassoon’s historical value, as well as the production and labor costs involved with putting it together, according to the Times. If its price hits the upper end of that range, it could become the most valuable historical document ever sold at auction.
The current record is $43.2 million, which art collector Ken Griffin paid for a first printing of the United States Constitution in November 2021. The next most expensive historical document behind that is the Codex Leicester, a collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific writings that Bill Gates bought for $30.8 million in 1994.
The Codex Sassoon has only been exhibited publicly once, as part of a 1982 show at the British Museum. Ahead of the auction on May 16, it will tour around the world, going on display in London, Tel Aviv, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York City.