November 24, 2004 — Book-collectors responded enthusiastically to Kestenbaum & Company’s auction of Exceptional Printed Books, Sixty-Five Hebrew Incunabula: The Elkan Nathan Adler-Wineman Family Collection that took place on November 22nd. This historic and unprecedented sale (never before had there been a recorded auction that had included so many Hebrew incunabula), exceeded all expectations realizing $3.78 million. All but 4 of the lots found buyers, with most of the books selling for more than their pre-sale estimates after competitive bidding in the room and on the phones.
Incunabula are printed books produced from the invention of the printing press until the year 1500, and are coveted by discerning book-collectors. Those that were printed in Hebrew are some of the rarest and most sought-after of all. Buyers eagerly took advantage of this unique opportunity to acquire such exceptional printed works. An auction record was set when a complete, wide-margined copy of the Mishnah with commentary by Maimonides, Naples, 1492, one of the most outstanding of Hebrew incunables, sold for $342,00 against a pre-auction estimate of $80,000-100,000, making it the highest price ever paid for a Hebrew Book printed on paper.
Another outstanding result was the $82,600 paid (against a pre-sale estimate of $10,000-15,000) for a single leaf of Rashi’s Commentary to the Pentateuch, Reggio di Calabria, 1475, the earliest dated Hebrew Printed Book and perhaps the most elusive of all Hebrew Books printed. This result is spectacular considering that the most recent acquisition at auction of a single leaf of the Famous Gutenberg Bible, the first book ever printed and perhaps the most celebrated book in the world was bought for $55,200. The anonymous buyer at Kestenbaum’s sale, having previously purchased the Gutenberg leaf commented that he bought the Bible leaf as “a monument to Western Enlightenment” and he bought the single Rashi leaf as a “testament to the foundations of Hebrew Scholarship”.
Further distinguishing the sale were Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy’s complete, beautifully printed, two-volume copy of the Editio Princeps of Sepher Mitzvoth Gadol, Rome, 1469-72, which fetched $263,600, topping its pre-sale estimate of $150,000-200,000; a fine complete copy of Maimonides’ Commentary to Mishnah Tractate Avoth, Soncino, 1484, which garnered $196,400, more than doubling its pre-sale estimate of $50,000-70,000; and a fine complete, wide-margined copy of Jacob ben Judah Landau’s Code of Jewish Law, Naples, 1491-2 which realized $176,240, sailing over its pre-sale estimate of $50,000-70,000.
Also finding favor with buyers were the celebrated Rome Ramba”m - a first edition of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Code of Law), manuscript, Italy, 1475-9, which fetched a top price of $174,000 against an estimate of $60,000-80,000 (even though it was a partial copy) and a first edition of Nachmanides’ Commentary to the Pentateuch, Rome 1469-72, which brought in $160,000 against an estimate of $70,000-90,000 although two leaves were lacking.
Mr. Jack V. Lunzer, Custodian of the Valmadonna Trust Library, the greatest collection of Hebrew printed books in private hands commented after the auction, “this was a benchmark sale and all future sales of its kind will be compared to it. It emphasized the importance of quality and completeness.”