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Medieval manuscript to be auctioned off for as much as $6 million, but not without controversy

The Luzzatto High Holiday Mahzor, created around the year 1300, is set to sell for between $4 million to $6 million (US) at an auction next week, despite calls to keep the medieval manuscript in France.

Sotheby’s New York will hold the auction on October 19th for the manuscript, which is currently owned by Alliance Israélite Universelle, a Paris-based human rights and educational organization. The Mahzor is a Hebrew prayerbook that contains the cycle of prayers for the entire Jewish liturgical year. Created in either the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century in southern Germany, It was copied by a Jewish scribal named Abraham, who disclosed his identity by decorating the name of the patriarch Abraham on various pages of the Mazhar or using either wing-like flourishes or elaborate feathered crowns. The book’s margins testify, however, that it did not stay in that locale but rather moved multiple times before settling in its present home.

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It continued to evolve as changed hands, several of which added marginalia to the codex’s pages. The earliest of these was a mixed German-French community, perhaps in Alsace, followed by Constance, Switzerland, to which it seemingly arrived following the Black Death, and Northern Italy, where it was eventually censored. Each of these places left its mark on a text of the volume, which is adapted and updated to bring him into line with local usages and contemporary customs. For instance, at Constance, the community had added prayers composed after anti-Jewish violence broke out during the Black Death pandemic. Additionally, there is evidence that an Italian Jewish owner between the mid-16th and mid-18th centuries, self-censored certain verbiage from the Mahzor that might be construed as offensive to Christianity.

In the mid-nineteenth century it fell into the hands of Samuel David Luzzatto an avid book collector and was part of his library until 1870 when it was purchased by Alliance Israélite Universelle for 3,600 francs.

“This 700-year-old prayer book offers fascinating windows onto the lives, writes, and rituals of medieval and early modern Ashhenzaic Jewry,” says Sharon Liberman Mintz, Senior Consultant of Books and Manuscripts at Sotheby’s. “It’s text, which holds the potential to expand our knowledge of liturgical history in several different regions of Europe, certainly merits further research, and its illustrations shed light on Jewish ceremonial practice in the Middle Ages. The fact that it was created by a Jewish scribe-artist at a time when many medieval Hebrew manuscripts were illustrated by Christian artists is especially noteworthy. Elegant calligraphy and beautiful program of decoration make this splendid, exceedingly rare manuscript worthy of the most important public and private collections worldwide.”

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Image courtesy Sotheby’s New York

The sale of the medieval manuscript has met some opposition, however, with a petition calling for the manuscript to remain in France. According to the petition, the “Mahzor Luzzatto is in danger of disappearing into a safe while at Alliance Israélite Universelle it is accessible to researchers. But beyond its interest in the knowledge of medieval European Judaism, this manuscript has symbolic importance which exceeds its market value. The Jews of France, who have a long experience of destruction or spoliation of their cultural property, should be the first concerned, but also all citizens concerned about the protection of the national heritage.”

The Alliance Israélite Universelle has dismissed the concerns of the petition and notes that the sale will allow its library, which contains 25,000 items, to operate for several more years. Marc Eisenberg, president of Alliance Israélite Universelle, added “I am surprised, first of all, that the initiators of the petition as well as a certain number of signatories who have long-standing links, and sometimes friendship, with the Alliance and its leaders, did not take the take care to contact us before launching a futile controversy. The Alliance has always taken care to safeguard its library, but for years we have been alerting to the cost of this community heritage which is very heavy to bear for our institution alone.”

Click here to learn more about the auction

Image courtesy Sotheby’s New York

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