NEW YORK - If ever there were a collecting couple with wide range, it is Michael and Judy Steinhardt. Their collection starts at about 7000 BC, with a Neolithic mask, yet it is so current that many of their treasures are still breathing. Hundreds of their acquired exotic animals reside in an elaborate private zoo on their 60-acre country retreat in Westchester County, New York.

Photo by Jean Bourbon.

In their apartment in New York, meanwhile, their varied holdings include a superlative collection of paintings and works on paper that spans Seurat to Jasper Johns.

It is hardly surprising that a recent conversation with the couple, ostensibly to discuss their highly significant collection of Judaica, covers broad territory.

Walking into the office of the legendary money manager turned philanthropist, an aerie on Madison Avenue with gorgeous views of Central Park, the initial chatter is not about illuminated Hebrew manuscripts or Sabbath Lamps, but marmosets and marsupials, as the couple discusses some of the diverse species on their property, which include Madagascan ring-tailed lemurs, Albino wallabies, zonkeys (a cross between a zebra and a donkey) and a 100-year old tortoise named Sexton.

Having been married 44 years, the Steinhardts are clearly comfortable finishing each other’s sentences and kidding about the other.

“Do we agree on the art we want to buy?” asks Judy, repeating a question. “We don’t agree on anything! It’s a nightmare!” she says, with a hearty laugh. “We fight about everything.”

But there are ground rules at home, she says. “Once he buys a piece, it is mine, and I have total control over whether we sell it or not. But oddly enough, there is a continuous thread through our collections, from ancient art to the contemporary works,” she continues. “All of our modern art has an ancient quality to it. We have a 4th century BC Greek vase that depicts women carrying water from a well on their heads. We have a 1922 Picasso – which was just in the Black and White show at the Guggenheim – which is very neo-classical. There is such a strong resemblance between the woman in that painting and the women on the vase. So you can see two people have collected these things together.”

Their collection of Judaica has very much been a joint project, one that has occupied them throughout their marriage. In fact, the Steinhardts bought their first pieces on their honeymoon in Jerusalem in 1968. During that trip, they decided to seek out one particular type of object, tzedakah, or charity boxes. “They come in all forms,” says Michael. “Some of them are very humble and some are quite exquisite.

“I decided this object best reflects my particular interest in the religion,” he explains. “Because I am a rather loudly self-proclaimed atheist.”

This declaration might seem surprising, coming from a man who, beyond assembling a highly important collection of Judaica, has become one of the leading philanthropists in the Jewish world. Through the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, which he chairs, he supports a wide array of charities, including Birthright Israel and The Early Jewish Childhood Education Initiative.

But Steinhardt sees no disconnect: “I felt, and continue to feel, that to be committed to the Jewish people, and to be a committed Jew, does not require a belief in God. It requires a belief in the Jewish people, and that is what I have.

“There are six or seven billion people in the world, but only 13 million of them are Jews. Yet so many of them have overachieved in a variety of fields. I have always been very interested in why that has happened.

“The collection is part of that interest. Even though most Judaica is generated from the religious aspects of Jewish life, the works interest me because they reflect the various places and times in which they were created.”

Indeed, the objects within the Steinhardts’ collection illustrate the sweep of Jewish history from antiquity through the 20th century, across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

But it all started with those humble tzedakah boxes, as Mr Steinhardt elaborates: “Charity has always been a central point of Judaism, so collecting them made some sense for me.

“One day on that first trip to Jerusalem, Judy and I decided to find as many [boxes] as we could. We started in the Old City, and went to every dealer we could find.”

The couple was crestfallen, however, when they proudly took their haul of a couple dozen boxes to a curator at the Israel Museum for her opinion. “She said they were all contemporary pastiches and none of them belonged in a collection.”

But that dose of cold water only emboldened the couple to hone their eyes and to study up. “With many varieties of Judaica, authenticity doesn’t stare out at you,” says Mr Steinhardt. Though the couple has since found dealers and curators whose opinions have been helpful, they have largely followed their own path. “No one has really guided us,” says Michael. “We’ve made some mistakes as a result, but they’re our mistakes. We enjoy following our own instincts. I am not the most disciplined collector in the world, and the collection has grown like topsy.”

Notwithstanding his modesty, the couple has acquired true treasures, such as the second volume of the Frankfurt Mishneh Torah, circa 1457, one of the finest illuminated Hebrew manuscripts ever created, with text by Moses Maimonides. (The first volume of this Torah is owned by the Vatican.)

Recently, the couple decided to part with their collection. Hence on 29 April Sotheby’s New York will offer The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection. According to Judy, the decision didn’t come easily. “I realised the collection was really part of our 44-year marriage. It was very emotional. We have gone to Israel twice a year on average since we were married, and those trips – which are represented by these objects – have formed an important part of our life together.”

“But I’m 72 now, and I felt it was time for the collection to be passed along to another generation,” says Michael.

Interestingly, this highly philanthropic couple decided to forego their usual route of donating the collection to a worthy institution.

The Steinhardts co-founded Birthright Israel, which remains one of their favourite causes.

“I give a lot of things away. But in this case, somehow, that didn’t seem the right thing to do. Many of these objects were everyday objects that were saved from destruction. We decided it would be better to disperse these objects broadly, so many more people could discover them,” says Mr Steinhardt.

Born and brought up in working-class Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Steinhardt at age 27 founded Steinhardt Partners, which became one of the most successful hedge funds ever. He chronicled its story in his 2001 memoir, No Bull: My Life In and Out of Markets.

In 1995 Steinhardt decided to close shop and devote himself to philanthropy, along with Judy, with whom he has three children and ten grandchildren. Between them, the industrious couple covers many bases. She is a longtime chairman of both New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and the American Friends of the Israel Museum. Both Steinhardts serve as trustees of New York University (they are the only married couple on its board), and devote themselves to Birthright Israel, an organisation he co-founded in 1998 with Charles Bronfman.

“It’s the biggest thing in our life,” says Judy. “The organisation sends Jews between the ages of 18-26, from anywhere in the world, on a free ten-day educational trip to Israel, without any strings attached.”

“We wanted to enable young people to discover their heritage,” Michael adds. “So far we’ve sent about 340,000 kids over. It’s the most successful programme in the Jewish world.”

Like most smart couples, the Steinhardts practice a division of labour. “Michael’s the visionary and the dreamer,” says Judy. “I’m the practical one.” But however they organise their efforts, this has been one successful partnership.  

James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.

[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]