'Jewish Mona Lisa' Sold at Auction Despite Objections From Scholars

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The Luzzatto High Holiday mahzor
The Luzzatto High Holiday mahzorCredit: Sotheby's

An ancient, elaborately illustrated medieval Jewish prayer book was sold at auction on Tuesday for $8.3 million, despite protests from scholars who believe the rare treasure should not fall into private hands. 

The Luzzatto High Holiday Machzor, a 700-year-old Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer book, is the oldest Hebrew prayer book ever to be sold at auction. 

The prayer book was listed for sale by Sotheby’s in September. It was sold by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a Paris-based Jewish philanthropic organization, and is estimated to be worth between $4-6 million.

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The Luzzatto machzor was written and illuminated by a Jewish scribe and artist named Abraham in southern Germany around the late 13th or early 14th century. Over the years, it was passed from hand to hand through Jewish communities in France and northern Italy. The machzor takes its name from the 19th-century Italian Jewish scholar and Bible commentator Shmuel David Luzzatto, who owned the book at one point. Following his death, 150 years ago, the book was purchased by the Alliance Israélite Universelle.

For more than a century, the prayer book has been available to researchers and to the public at exhibitions. The Alliance announced that the valuable artifact would be sold to help cover their overwhelming debts.

Critics of the sale in France have lobbied the French government to declare the work to be a “national treasure,” engineering a legal option that would move the work to a national government collection in exchange for a tax break equivalent to its value for the donors. 

An online petition signed by international scholars and French dignitaries, including a former French Minister of Culture, warns that the prayer book would be at risk of “disappearing into a safe” if acquired by a private individual, and should not be permitted to leave France.

“Beyond the scholarly interest in medieval European Judaism, this manuscript has a symbolic importance which exceeds its market value,” the petition says. “The Jews of France, who have long experience of the destruction of their cultural property, should be most concerned, but so should all citizens concerned about the protection of the national heritage.”

Sefy Hendler, a prominent Israeli art historian, wrote in Haaretz that the prayer book amounts to a “Jewish Mona Lisa.” He argues that the books hundreds of pages, “with their delicate illustrations of fantastical animals and human beings, Gothic architecture, shofars and prayer shawls,” and hand-written notes in the margins make the book invaluable in telling “the story of the community of Ashkenaz in the late 13th century.”

Hendler argues that if the French government doesn't intervene and the sale at Sotheby’s goes forward, “the State of Israel should acquire the machzor for the collection of the renewed National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Although [the estimated price of] $5 million is quite a large sum, it’s still a bargain for a legacy of generations that has been abandoned by its French guardians.”

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