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Monetizing a Museum’s Imprimatur: Mishneh Torah Missteps UPDATED

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Misleading cover lot: Sotheby’s catalogue for Steinhardt Judaica collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Was it all just a charade?

It seems clear to me now, from my revelatory discussion on Friday with Michael Steinhardt, that Sotheby’s must have had more than an inkling that the Frankfurt Mishneh Torah was going to be withdrawn from this morning’s Steinhardt Judaica auction, even as its experts were touting to the press and prospective bidders the sale’s purported star lot. The c. 1457 illustrated copy of Maimonides‘ magnum opus, which he completed in 1180, bore the highest estimate ($4.5-6 million) in a sale packed with many modest objects bearing four-figure pricetags.

If there were ever an object that should have been given, rather than sold, to the Israel Museum, this is it.

Although it must have known more than it let on to those who attended its presale exhibition, Sotheby’s announcement that its cover lot was being withdrawn from the sale wasn’t made until this morning, hitting my inbox just an hour before the auction’s 10 a.m. start. As the preeminent attraction of the presale exhibition, it may have helped generate increased bidding interest in collection’s less stellar offerings.

Responding to my query on Friday about why Steinhardt, a generous benefactor of the Israel Museum, wasn’t donating the Mishneh Torah to that institution, which had advised him on its purchase, conserved it and displayed it in its permanent collection galleries for three years, the hedge fund mogul had told me:

How this will resolve itself is not clear. There are things happening now that I can’t tell you about at the moment, but it’s a live issue [emphasis added]. Today is Friday and the auction is Monday. Between Friday and Monday, I’m not going to talk about what may happen on Monday.

Now we know how this matter has “resolved itself”: As explained by Sotheby’s auctioneer David Redden, who announced the withdrawal at the start of today’s auction (still in process, at this writing), the Mishneh Torah will be jointly shared by the Israel and the Metropolitan museums. Steinhardt had told me Friday that the Met, to which he has loaned antiquities, was also interested in the manuscript. From that perhaps I should have predicted in my previous post that the Met would become a joint-acquirer. (I did predict that the work would be withdrawn from the sale for transfer to the Israel Museum.) The two-state solution just hadn’t occurred to me.

UPDATE: Sotheby’s stated that the price being paid for the Mishneh Torah is “significantly in excess” of the previous $2.9-million record for Judaica at auction, set in 1989 by a Hebrew Bible that was sold at Sotheby’s, London.

What particularly astonished me today was the news that the manuscript is not going to the museums as a gift: It is to be jointly purchased by them. As revealed in the institutions’ joint press release, the Israel Museum has lined up a list of donors to support its share of the purchase. The Met, on the other hand, said it will announce where its purchase funds will come from “at a later date.”

Given its intimate relationship to this object, the Israel Museum should never have had to scrounge for money to acquire it. As Steinhardt himself told me, James Snyder, director of the Jerusalem institution, had personally advised him on his 2007 purchase of the manuscript.

The Israel Museum then painstakingly conserved it. The notes in the auction catalogue tell us this:

The manuscript was disbound, each leaf was examined and treated as necessary and all gilding was consolidated throughout. The manuscript was then reassembled according to the correct order of the Maimonidean text and leaves which had previously been misbound were placed in their correct locations.

When I asked Steinhardt whether he or the museum had paid for this conservation, he said he didn’t remember.

After its restoration, the vellum volume was placed on “extended loan” in the Israel Museum’s permanent collection galleries from 2010 until earlier this year, when it was removed for prominent display in a Sotheby’s case:

Frankfurt Mishneh Torah, accorded its own room at Sotheby's presale exhibition Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Frankfurt Mishneh Torah, accorded its own room at Sotheby’s presale exhibition
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

If I were James Snyder, I’d feel I’d been used. But here’s what the diplomatic director actually did say, as quoted in the press release:

The Mishneh Torah is a rare treasure that unites Jewish literary heritage with some of the finest illuminations from the Italian Renaissance. On loan for display in our galleries in recent years, the manuscript now becomes a seminal addition to our extensive holdings in illuminated Hebrew manuscripts.

We are very pleased to be acquiring this work jointly with the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the shared enjoyment of our publics in Jerusalem and in New York and are grateful to the international group of supporters that enabled this important acquisition.

Interestingly, the Israel Museum’s list of its “international group of supporters,” who are helping to defray its share of the purchase price, includes the Steinhardts themselves. Does this mean that they have reduced their price? Is this being treated as a partial purchase, partial gift?

Steinhardt, a board member and honorary chairman of American Friends of the Israel Museum (a support group), said he has “given a lot of things” to that museum in the past, most notably a Rembrandt. Remaining in today’s auction and hammered down at $540,000 (selling short of it $600,000-800,000 presale estimate) was the northern Italian, mid-18th century Scroll of Esther that had been on loan to the Israel Museum for the last 20 years.

In a statement read by Redden at the start of today’s auction, Steinhardt called the sale of the Mishneh Torah “poetic [emphasis added], given Judy’s and my longstanding involvement with both institutions.”

Perhaps that poem should be titled, “Donation Lost”

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