Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2017 Issue

The Greatest Private Library of Judaica has been Sold to the National Library of Israel

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Jack Lunzer with the Valmadonna Trust Library (from Sotheby's video).

What was believed to be the largest private collection of books of Judaica recently found a home after almost a decade of uncertainty. The problem was that the collection was too large and valuable for any one buyer, and yet its owner, Jack Lunzer, wanted the library kept together. Finally, in late 2015, a couple of the most expensive pieces were sold off separately, but the remaining 10,000-plus items remained together. Now, they have been sold, and the buyer is the most logical one – the National Library of Israel.

 

The story of this library of Judaica is almost as fascinating as the material itself. The man who put it together, Jack V. Lunzer, was not the most likely candidate for such a spectacular collection. Naturally, he was well off, though there were others of far greater means than he. Lunzer was a diamond merchant, but not of the enormously valuable ones you use in jewelry. He sold industrial diamonds.

 

Lunzer was born in Belgium, where his father worked as a dealer for De Beers. That is where he started, but moved on to start his own business selling industrial diamonds. In 1948, he married an Italian woman whose father had a small collection of Hebrew books. He was hooked. Lunzer decided to build on that collection. His daughter recalled his scouring far off rural communities and such to find treasures to add to his collection. He called it the Valmadonna Library, named after a small town in Italy. It was his passion, and after his wife died in 1978, that passion was ratcheted up a few notches as it became the center of his life.

 

A few years after the turn of the century, Jack Lunzer reached his 80's. At that point, he realized he needed to make plans for his library after he died. He had five daughters, but none was a candidate for maintaining something so large. The collection was placed in a trust, the Valmadonna Trust, and he began looking for a buyer.

 

In 2009, he brought the collection to Sotheby's, hoping to sell it en bloc. He had a bid at $25 million, his minimum price, but the buyer backed out, unwilling to meet Lunzer's stipulations about making it available to scholars. He continued to search for buyers, but no one emerged at the asking price. There were reports that the Library of Congress offered $20 million, but if so, that would still have been $5 million short of his minimum price for a collection he believed to be worth more like $40 million.

 

Finally, in 2015, Lunzer's memory now fading, the trustees decided to put a couple dozen of the more desirable items up for sale. That sale was held at Sotheby's in December 2015, and it certainly helped confirm Lunzer's valuation of the library. The top two most expensive auction prices in the books and paper field for all of 2015 were achieved at that sale. Far and away the highest price of the year went for a complete Babylonian Talmud, nine volumes printed in Venice by Daniel Bomberg in 1519-1539. It sold for $9,322,000. Runner up for the year was Lunzer's copy of a Hebrew Bible published in England in 1189. It was the only surviving English Jewish manuscript from prior to the expulsion of the Jews in 1290. It sold for $3,610,000.

 

Sotheby's described that sale as "Part I," the implication being obvious. However, no further sales were held through all of 2016. Then, in December of that year, Lunzer, age 92, died. That likely spurred on movement toward a final dispersion of the bulk of the items in the library. With Sotheby's still facilitating the transaction, a sale was finally made to the National Library of Israel, the most logical place for it to go all along. The library is constructing a new facility which is expected to be open to the public in 2020. It's hard to imagine a better place for Lunzer's collection to be.

 

Terms of the sale were not disclosed.

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