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The Codex Sassoon, one of the world's oldest Hebrew Bibles, is up for auction

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

One of the world's oldest Hebrew Bibles goes up for auction today. It's expected to command bids of, well, biblical proportions - tens of millions of dollars. Marisa Mazria Katz has the story.

(CROSSTALK)

MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: In the middle of a windowless room in Sotheby's Upper East Side auction house, crowds swarm a 26-pound book that looks straight out of an old master's painting, with crinkled, yellowed parchment covered in thick, black Hebrew script.

SHARON LIBERMAN MINTZ: There may have been earlier books - Hebrew books, but we don't have them. This in front of you is the earliest, most complete, accurate, stable text of the Hebrew Bible.

MAZRIA KATZ: That's Sharon Liberman Mintz. She's the senior Judaica specialist at Sotheby's who is overseeing the sale of the Codex Sassoon. Codex is what you call an ancient manuscript - and Sassoon for the name of its most famous owner, collector David Solomon Sassoon.

MINTZ: This was the crown jewel in his collection.

MAZRIA KATZ: The origins of the book are a bit murky. The first time it was sold was around 1000 A.D. Roughly 200 years later, someone wrote a dedication inside to a synagogue in Syria. But then, for nearly 600 years, there was no record of its whereabouts until Sassoon got his hands on it in the 1920s. He was a member of one of the wealthiest merchant families of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was also one of the greatest collectors of Hebrew manuscripts. Claudia Nahson, a curator of a show about the Sassoon family at New York's Jewish Museum, says he saw the codex as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

CLAUDIA NAHSON: I mean, if - you know, as soon as he learned that this was available, he pursued it earnestly.

MAZRIA KATZ: Sotheby's relied on carbon dating plus scholarly research to authenticate the book. Sassoon paid 350 British pounds for it - around $22,000 today - which is also about $29 million below Sotheby's current asking price. The high price could mean it ends up back in a private collection.

YOSEF OFER: I would prefer if it could be - go to an institution in Israel or even in the States.

MAZRIA KATZ: That's Professor Yosef Ofer of Bar-Ilan University's bible department.

OFER: I hope that, wherever it will be, it will be known. Everyone will know where the manuscript is, and the scholars will be able to get permission to go on and - to see it.

MAZRIA KATZ: The auction for Codex Sassoon takes place later today.

For NPR News, this is Marisa Mazria Katz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Marisa Mazria Katz