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Will Mishneh Torah Go to Israel Museum (Instead of Sotheby’s Auction)? Michael Steinhardt’s, James Snyder’s Enigmatic Responses (with video)

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Left to right: Jennifer Roth, head of Sotheby’s Judaica department, Michael Steinhardt, Judy Steinhardt
Screenshot from Sotheby’s promotional video for Steinhardt auction

I was surprised and irked Wednesday when I learned that the star offering in this Monday’s New York auction of the Michael and Judy Steinhardt‘s Judaica collection—the 15th-century illustrated Frankfurt Mishneh Torah (presale estimate: $4.5-6 million) had not only been proudly displayed on “extended loan” for the past three years in the permanent-collection galleries of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, but had first been restored to exhibition-worthy condition by the museum, which had unbound, painstakingly conserved and reassembled it.

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An illustration from the Mishnah Torah, c. 1457, northern Italy, depicting a legal trial (defendant in middle on left, jury on right)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Shouldn’t the Israel Museum been given first crack at this treasure, before it was dispatched to public auction?

From comments made to me separately today by Michael Steinhardt and by the Israel Museum’s director, James Snyder, I now think that a transfer to the Israel Museum may indeed be in the works.

Here’s what Steinhardt, the New York hedge fund mogul who became a major (sometimes controversial) collector of antiquities and a generous philathropist, told me today by phone when I asked why the manuscript was going to auction instead of to the Israel Museum:

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.

And here’s the friendly but cryptic e-mailed response I received from Snyder:

I cannot discuss this situation at this time but am happy to talk to you when I am back in Jerusalem at the end of next week!

Going a bit out on a limb, I’m guessing that Snyder may well have good reason to be “happy to talk” next week.

The celebrated manuscript’s Hebrew text—a comprehensive code of Jewish law, arranged by subject matter—is still intently scrutized and cited by rabbis and scholars. Its author was  Maimonides, the legendary Jewish philosopher, who completed it in 1180. (The Frankfurt copy contains only Books 7 to 14 of Maimonides’ magnum opus. Books 1-5 are in the Vatican Library; Book 6 is lost.)

The scribe who copied Maimonides’ text nearly three centuries later for the Frankfurt Mishneh Torah is thought to have been Nehemiah, commissioned by an unknown patron. The delicately rendered images, in which every plant is lovingly detailed and every individual’s face is emotionally expressive—is “firmly attributed to the hand of the Master of the Barbo Missal,” according to Sotheby’s catalogue.

Snyder had a lot invested in getting this object: He not only oversaw the conservation of the celebrated 346-leaf manuscript by his institution, but he personally advised his friend Steinhardt, before the purchase, on the great importance of this copy of the Mishneh Torah. (You’ll hear more about why it’s important in my CultureGrrl Video, below.)

Steinhardt bought the manuscript in 2007 in a private deal (price undisclosed) that was brokered by Sotheby’s. The Jewish family that sold it to him had received it and seven additional manuscripts from the Frankfurt State and University Library in 1950, in exchange for land in downtown Frankfurt that the city wanted for municipal development.

Steinhardt told me that “at one point, the Metropoltan Museum was also deeply interested in this [the Mishneh Torah] and encouraged me to buy it. The Met is still interested.”

Although he has loaned works from his antiquities collection to the Met (which I previously mentioned and photographed, here), Steinhardt flatly asserted today that he would not donate those objects to the Met, adding that he was “less than overjoyed” with how that institution has handled antiquities controversies.

Bronze Head of a Young Man, late Hellenistic, ca. 2nd-1st century B.C., lent by Judy and Michael Steinhardt Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Bronze Head of a Young Man, late Hellenistic, ca. 2nd-1st century B.C., lent to the Met by the Steinhardt Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The withdrawal of the Mishneh Torah from Monday’s auction, if it does occur, would leave a big hole in a sale of some 386 lots that is a very mixed bag of objects from antiquity to the 20th century.

On view now at Sotheby’s, it includes everything from tin tzedakah (charity) boxes…

From a group of 11 tin tzedakah (charity) boxes, 20th century (est. for set: $3,000-4,000)

Group of 11 tin tzedakah (charity) boxes, 20th century
(estimate for the group: $3,000-4,000)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…to exquisitely wrought ritual objects in silver and bronze:

Silver Torah crown and Torah finials, Venice, early 18th century (est. $400,000-600,000) Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Silver Torah crown and pair of Torah finials, Venice, early 18th century
(estimate: $400,000-600,000)

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Another big hole would be left in Monday’s auction if another object, on loan to the Israel Museum for a far longer period—the last 20 years—were also withdrawn for transfer to that institution. It’s this monumental Scroll of Esther:

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Scroll of Esther, Northern Italy, mid-18th century

Now join me at Sotheby’s press preview, where you’ll learn (among other things) why many of the images and much of the metalwork for these Jewish treasures were created not by Jews but by Christian craftsmen.

At the end, you’ll get to view and learn more about the Mishneh Torah:

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