May 17, 2023 - Economy

Oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible sells for $38.1M

The Codex Sassoon

Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

The Codex Sassoon — the oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible, dating to 900 CE — sold at Sotheby's in New York on Wednesday for $38.1 million, dashing hopes that it might become the most valuable text ever sold at auction.

Why it matters: Books, even when they're astonishingly rare and of maximal historical and religious significance, never sell for much more than, say, a middling Picasso.

  • The previous day, for instance, Sotheby's sold a medium-sized Klimt painting of water for $53.2 million, raising no eyebrows and garnering almost no press coverage.

Between the lines: The Klimt, unlike the book, has wall power — it looks great above a sofa.

Zoom in: The buyer was the American Friends of ANU — Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, which plans to donate the book to the museum.

  • "It was my mission, realizing the historic significance of Codex Sassoon, to see that it resides in a place with global access to all people," said Alfred Moses, a lawyer and former U.S. ambassador to Romania who funded the purchase.
  • A copy of the U.S. Constitution, bought last year by billionaire Ken Griffin for $43.2 million, still holds the record for the most expensive text sold at auction.

The bottom line: The most important doesn't always mean the most expensive.

Go deeper