Books: Treasure trove without a home

As a contrast to Temple University’s hosting of the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center resources, Tablet Magazine covered a situation of the opposite sort, detailing how a major Hebraica collection cannot find a home.

Find the article here, as well as a slide show of images.

Tracing the Tribe reported earlier on the Valmadonna Trust Library exhibit at Sotheby’s. Tablet now takes up the cause.

The story of one of the greatest coups in the history of book collecting began, as it happens, with a mistake.

In 1956, an industrial diamond dealer and bibliophile named Jack Lunzer convinced a guard at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to let him leaf through several early Hebrew books on loan from Westminster Abbey for a show celebrating the tercentenary of Jews’ readmission to Britain, in 1656, after their expulsion in 1290 by King Edward I. Lunzer quickly noticed the books had been mislabeled; one, it turned out, contained pages from the Babylonian Talmud printed by Daniel Bomberg, a Christian from Venice who was the first to issue a complete edition of the work, starting in 1520. Curiosity led Lunzer back to Westminster Abbey, where he discovered all nine volumes of Bomberg’s masterwork had lain hidden for centuries behind layers of dust—a perfectly preserved copy of the most valuable
Talmud in the world.

Over the next two decades, he searched auctions and sales, finding loose pages to create his own Bomberg set, and also bought up more early manuscripts and printed books across Europe to add to an inherited collection from his wife’s parents.

His finds included trading discoveries for items deemed “not for sale” in some collections, such as getting the Westminster Abbey Bomberg with a trade of a copy of the Abbey’s foundation charter. The Abbey then sold him the Bomberg.

Lunzer called his collection the Valmadonna Trust Library after the Italian Piedmont town where his wife’s family had connections. It includes more than 13,000 early Hebrew books and other manuscripts and printed matter.

As a collector, Lunzer’s goal was to illustrate Jewish history, primarily the Sephardic flight eastward from Spain through Italy to the Ottoman Empire, by assembling as much as possible of “the great jigsaw puzzle” of texts produced in workshops from Lisbon to Calcutta starting in the 15th century. It ranks among the greatest collections of Hebraica ever assembled by a single individual, and is one of the finest libraries of any kind assembled in contemporary Britain by a collector who is still living.

After 60 years of collecting, Lunzer is trying to find a home for the $40 million sale of the Valmadonna. It was exhibited for 10 days in Sotheby’s New York headquarters, and although it generated a fantastic amount of interest, there have not been any serious offers.

According to the Tablet story, in 2002, the Library of Congress came close to buying the entire collection. Lunzer also favors the LOC, and in 2002 the terms allowed the collection to remain intact and publicly accessible. There is speculation on whether a final deal can be completed.

Born in Antwerp, he made his money in industrial diamonds. He married Ruth Zippel, born in Italy to Polish parents; she died in 1978. Her father’s small collection of Hebrew books survived the war hidden in a basement in Milan, and her brothers asked the couple to take them to London. Read the story more details on Lunzer and his wife.

The story also details how he amassed this collection over the years, and how in 1980, people began to take a much more focused interest in these kinds of books when the art market exploded into prices that people couldn’t afford. But even the books went from low four figures into five and six figures and even higher for manuscripts.

Historically, these books weren’t in such great condition, and Lunzer’s habit was to buy duplicates in order to put together copies of the books that were as perfect as possible, and he had these “new” copies bound by one of the UK’s best antiquarian bookbinders, Bernard Middleton.

One interesting fact is that some people familiar with the collection say that the leather used has an unusual aroma and that it’s possible to identify a book by sniffing the binding.

The main value of the group is in the Westminister Bomberg and an 1189 English Pentateuch manuscript. In December 2008 an incomplete Bomberg Talmud sold for $2.25 million, more than double the high estimate, indicating the skyward value of Lunzer’s perfect Bomberg.

Lunzer wants the collection to go as a unit to a good home, and not be sold piecemeal as other big collections have gone. The economic recession has also impacted the Valmadonna sale. The logistics of buying, housing and preserving such a huge collection (and the staff to do it) are daunting. British institutions have comparable Hebraica collections and don’t need Lunzer’s, which is why the books were sent to New York. Among possible homes are Princeton or the University of Pennsylvania.

But Lunzer, in repeated conversations, said he doesn’t want just anyone to have his books. “It would be the crown of the Library of Congress to have these things, and for the Jewish community in America,” he insisted. “The world would gasp.”

There’s an extensive section about the LOC collection and current librarian James Billington. By 2002, the LOC had raised $20 from private donors to buy the collection and renovate a balcony overlooking the central reading room to house most of it. And, in 2004, Billington approached Lunzer.

Why did it collapse? Some donors may have withdrawn their commitments for their own financial reasons, while another said the collection’s trust wanted to push the price higher.

Lunzer also gave Tablet a letter Billington wrote in January 2008 indicating he was open to negotiation, although the key would be the price that the parties can accept and donors to provide the funds.

Lunzer noted that if it is not sold in the next year he would bring it back to his UK estate.

A fascinating story. Read the complete story at the link above.

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