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


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.


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