An antiquarian book dealer based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Stevenson, Md., is the new owner of Daniel Bomberg’s 16th- century Babylonian Talmud, bought last week in auction at Sotheby’s New York. The $9.3 million sales price set a new world record for a single item of Judaica.
Stephan Loewentheil of The 19th Century Rare Book & Photograph Shop acquired the famous and finely preserved edition of the Talmud, a multi-volume series printed in Venice and, according to Sotheby’s, one of the most significant books in the history of Jewish printing. Only 14 complete sets are known to be in existence.
“I am neither Orthodox nor a Hebrew scholar. I do deal in great books of the world,” Loewentheil told The Jewish Week.
The Bomberg Talmud, which had been part of the Valmadonna Trust Library — a huge and precious Judaica library assembled by Jack Lunzer of London — had been kept for centuries in the Library at Westminster Abbey in London. Lunzer first saw it there in 1956, and spent the next 25 years trying to acquire it.
Loewentheil says, “The Talmud, in addition to being a critical book for Jews, is a great book for the world. This set demonstrates that. When you look into its provenance: It was bought by a non-Jew, it then went into one of the great colleges, Christ College at Oxford, then to Westminster Abbey for 400 years. It has great appeal beyond the Jewish community, which is not to minimize its critical importance to our culture.”
The Sotheby’s sale was significant, in that nine lots that were part of the Valmadonna Trust were sold — this is the first time that Lunzer’s library has been broken up. It was Lunzer’s wish to keep the entire collection intact and sell it to an institution, but Sotheby’s and Lunzer were not able to complete such a deal. Lunzer is now ill, and the trustees of the Trust decided to go ahead with this sale.
Loewentheil never met Lunzer but describes him as “a legend in the world of book collection.”
According to Sotheby’s, total sales from the Valmadonna Trust items were $14.9 million, with a Hebrew Bible from 1189 selling for $3,610,000, and a 1401 illuminated edition of the Hebrew Psalms from Italy selling for $670,000, making this the most valuable Judaica auction ever held.
Loewentheil is the only buyer who was identified. Other sales were made to private or anonymous collectors. Loewentheil, a lawyer who has been building his collection for 35 years, is president and founder of the 19th Century Rare Books & Photograph Shop. It deals in “rare books, manuscripts and photographs representing mankind’s greatest achievements,” according to its website. One of Lowentheil’s areas of special interest is early editions of Shakespeare, and he has the world’s largest collection of photos taken in China in the 19th century. His penthouse showroom on the Williamsburg waterfront is open by appointment only — “people who have reason to see things come and visit us.”
Some reports have said the Bomberg Talmud was purchased for New York businessman Leon Black. When asked about this, Loewentheil replies, “Speculation is an inexpensive commodity.”
“My job is to find a proper placement. I’m a small link in the chain of custody,” he says. “I will place it where it will always be available to legitimate scholars.”
He adds, “Sometimes I keep things I love for a very long time.”