N.Y. and Israeli Museums to Share Rare Handwritten Copy of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem have jointly acquired a rare 15th-century handwritten copy of Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides' (Rambam) most famous work, the Mishneh Torah, they announced Monday.

The two institutions said they would share the manuscript on a rotating basis.

The copy was created in 1457 in the style of Northern Italian Renaissance miniature painting. It was restored at the conservation lab of the Israel Museum, where it has been on loan since 2007 and on public view since 2010.

The Mishneh Torah was originally penned by Maimonides in 1180, and had initially been copied by hand. According to James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, the rare manuscript was created after the advent of the printing press, and its significance lies in the fact that it is one of the last copies to be made manually.

"The Mishneh Torah is a rare treasure that unites Jewish literary heritage with some of the finest illuminations from the Italian Renaissance," Snyder said.

"The Mishneh Torah, a document of great historical and literary importance, and a masterpiece of illumination, will be a major addition to the museum's permanent and encyclopedic collection," added Met Director and CEO Thomas Campbell.

The manuscript is the second of two volumes, consisting of books 7-14 of Maimonides' work and featuring six large illustrations, 32 smaller images and marginal decorations. The first volume, consisting of books 1-5, is housed in the Vatican Library. Book 6 is thought to have been lost.

The first volume was purchased in the 19th century by Italian collector Giovanni Francesco Der Rossi before making into the Vatican. The second volume reached Germany as part of the collection of Jewish banker Avraham Merzbacher of Munich, before ending up in the Frankfurt municipal library. In 1950 it was purchased by a Jewish family in the German city, and in 2007 was sold to collectors Michael and Judy Steinhardt.

The book was the highlight of an auction Monday at Sotheby's from the Steinhardts' collection.

Sotheby's and the Israel Museum declined to say how much the two museums paid beyond that it was more than the $2.9 million paid for a Hebrew Bible in 1989 at Sotheby's London, which set an auction record for Judaica.

The copy of the Mishne Torah had been estimated to bring $4.5 million to $6 million at the auction.

The Steinhardts began collecting objects of Jewish history and culture three decades ago, eventually amassing a trove of manuscripts, textiles and art worth millions of dollars. The 500-piece Judaica material spans thousands of years, from antiquity to modern times, and contains objects from all over the world.

Page from rare copy of Mishneh Torah, jointly purchased by the Met in New York and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Credit: AP

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