Jack Lunzer with his real jewels

Jack Lunzer with his real jewels

How did you spend your St. Valentine’s Day? Reading Yitro? On a date? Hanging with “quirky alone?” How about a torrid love affair with a Jewish Book? I visited Sotheby’s Manhattan auction house exhibition space, where thousands of books are on view from the Valmadonna Trust, a private collection of Jewish books which is estimated to be worth $40 Million (plus the buyer’s commission aid to the auction house). The 13,000+ books were collected by Jack V. Lunzer, 84, an Antwerp-born commercial diamond merchant based in London.

Valmadonna is a town of 1100 souls in Italy which is located in the Piemonte region of Alessandria. The Lunzer family has a connection to the village and thus named the collection the Valmadonna Trust. It could have been worse. Their connection could have been to Cantalupo or Il Christo, the adjacent towns. Can you imagine the Cantaloupe Trust or Il Christo?

Bomberg's Bounce

Bomberg's Bounce

Among the books in the collection are one of only 11 original copies of the Communist Manifesto (1848) in German; and a Babylonian Talmud from 1519-1523 that was printed in Venice by the Christian printer of Hebrew books, Daniel Bomberg (the myth, perhaps true, is that the copy was brought to England by King Henry the 8th, during his attempt to find a loophole to divorce one of his wives). It is said that Lunzer negotiated for 25 years to obtain this item from Westminster Abbey. Another item is a Hebrew Bible from 1189, which was written by a scribe in York England and looted in 1190 when the Jews of York were massacred. One hundred years after this English pogrom, in 1290, King Edward the First (Longshanks) forced Jews to wear yellow badges and expelled the Jews from England in order to confiscate their property and money and to receive the support of his barons and the populace who hated the Jews and their perceived usury. I guess Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” was right to whip at axe at Longshank’s military forces.

Italy in the 16th century was the cradle of Hebrew printing at the industry’s very inception, and the Valmadonna Trust includes virtually complete holdings of existing Jewish texts printed during this era, from Mantua, Venice, Naples, Livorno, Pisa and Trieste among many others. Highlights among these Italian works include a copy of the sole complete edition of the Mishnah with commentary by Maimonides. Printed in Naples by Joshua Solomon Soncino and Joseph ibn Peso in 1492, this edition contains forty-seven woodcut illustrations interpreting the rules of eruvin (explaining it and not just decorating)

A Viennese Grace After Meals

A Viennese Grace After Meals

Another fascinating book is Judah ben Jehiel’s “Nofet Zufim,” or “Flow of the Honeycomb.” The first Hebrew book printed during the lifetime of its author (most likely at Mantua around 1475), this humanist text compares biblical Hebrew rhetoric to the Greek and Roman classics. Also on view was a document in Hebrew and Marathi from early 20th century Pakistan; and a Hebrew prayer book printed in 1516 in Fez.

Hebrew printing north of the Alps began in Prague in 1512 with the circle of Gershom ben Solomon Kohen. Prague was soon established as a great hub of Hebrew printing, from which point printing in Polish communities such Lublin sprung. The Valmadonna Library boasts a Passover Haggadah printed on vellum by Kohen in Prague in 1526. Not only is this book the earliest dated and illustrated edition of the Haggadah known to exist; it is also fascinating in that it contains, as the lyrics to a song, the first printed verse in Yiddish. A later Haggadah, published in 1556 by Gershom Kohen’s grandsons, is another highlight of the Valmadonna Library. Due to the fire that ravaged the Prague Jewish ghetto in 1557, only one other copy of this edition is known to exist, in the British Library. Many other major Hebrew printing centers are represented in the exhibition, including Basel, Paris, Cracow, and Geneva. Please note: The Haggadah, weirdly, made no mention of Manischewitz.

ValMaDonna Donna Bo Bonna...

ValMaDonna Donna Bo Bonna...

Lunzer set out to assemble a library of early printing from every town and village that had a Hebrew printing press, and it is good to remember that printing in Hebrew required a license from the royal government of the time, and it was easily revoked. In addition of Prague and Italy, Lunzer purchased books from Calcutta, Constantinople, Bombay, and Shanghai.

If you are in NYC, see this before February 19, when it will be returned to Lunzer’s garden shed, or get auctioned off to a collector or academic library.

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  • Just to add some more info

    1. Sothebys is at 72nd and York.

    2. 2000 people came to see the books and wall hangings on Sunday 2/15, and over 600 were there on Monday morning. And the crowd was quite eclectic, young and old and very old, dark haired and fair haired, brown eyed and blue.

    3 A story about the Bomberg Talmud from Westminster Abbey. Lunzer told the following British accented story. Many decades ago, he saw the Talmud at an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum It was classified / labeled incorrectly by Westminster Abbey library and the museum. Lunzer had asked a guard at closing time to let him touch the copy, and realized it was not just an old book, but a copy of one of the book’s of the Babylonian Talmud printed by Bomberg. It was extremely rare since so many Jewish books in Italy had been burned by various papal decrees

    Lunzer rang up the librarian of Westminster Abbey and strengthened their friendship by sending over three of his people to help clean the library’s storage stacks of hundreds of years of dust.

    For 25 years, Lunzer tried to acquire these Bomberg editions of the Talmud for his trust. Mr. Nixon, the librarian at Westminster Abbey declined the attempts and finally said that the copies were integral to Westminster Abbey and could never be sold.

    Then one day, Lunzer was flying from Seirra Leone back to England, and asked the flight attendantr for a paper to read And there he saw a tiny itty bitty story. An American had purchased the rare and historic “deed” item which created Westminster Abbey. The British government could not stop the sale, but they could stop the export of the item, and thus they had forbade its export.

    The next workday, Lunzer phoned up Nixon at Westminster Abbey. Nixon answered and said, “We were expecting your call.” Lunzer made an offer. He would acquire the item via Sotheby’s from the New York buyer and generously donate it to Westminster Abbey. Perhaps Westminster could do a favour for Lunzer in return….

    And that is how Lunzer obtained the centuries old copy of the Bomberg printed Talmud, reputed to have been brought to England for King Henry VIII.

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