NEW YORK, 29 October 2020 – Sotheby’s is honored to announce that it will present a dedicated auction of important Judaica from the legendary Sassoon family on 17 December in New York.
Assembled over the course of more than a century by the fabled “Rothschilds of the East,” SASSOON: A Golden Legacy will present a treasure trove of gilded silver objects, rare Hebrew manuscripts, textiles and family artifacts, ranging geographically from Western Europe to the Far East, with rarities dating from the 11th to the 20th centuries. The nearly 70 lots in the collection are monumental in their significance as a primary source on the history of Jewish life and culture, and of the legendary Sassoon family.
With roots in Baghdad, the Sassoons relocated in the 1830s to India, led by their patriarch David Sassoon who established Bombay as the seat of his vast trade empire. He went on to open branches of his company in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Rangoon and played a key role in the industrialization of the Far East. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much of this fabled family moved to England, entering British high society and distinguishing themselves in the fields of journalism, philanthropy, poetry, politics, and the patronage of the arts. Several members, most notably Reuben David Sassoon, Flora Sassoon, David Solomon Sassoon, and Solomon David Sassoon, were particularly avid collectors of items of Jewish interest.
This sale offers treasures that have descended in the family since its earliest days, with items assembled during their residencies in Baghdad, Bombay, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom. An important group of objects comes from Philip Salomons, brother of the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London and one of the earliest collectors of antique Judaica. That collection was bought by Reuben David Sassoon, who augmented it and subsequently lent many of these items — including several offered for sale here — to the groundbreaking 1887 Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the first exhibition broadly dedicated to Judaica. Many were shown again in 1906, but have not been seen in public for over a century.
“We are incredibly privileged to present the Sassoon collection,” said John Ward, Head of Sotheby’s Silver Department in New York. “Sotheby’s history with the Sassoons goes back to the early 20th century, when David Solomon Sassoon bought Jewish books and manuscripts in Bond Street in the early 1900s. Beginning in 1970, we have been honored to host an extraordinary series of sales for the family in Zurich, New York, London, and Tel Aviv. The pieces in this sale are not just the personal holdings of one of the world’s great Jewish families, they are significant works of art, and tell an important story of Jewish patronage, collecting, and scholarship.”
Sharon Liberman Mintz, Senior Consultant of Books and Manuscripts at Sotheby’s, stated: “The distinguished pedigree, superior quality, and historical importance of this collection leaves me breathless. Not only are the Silver and Hebrew manuscripts some of the finest objects to ever come to market, they are further distinguished by their unparalleled provenance to generations of members from this legendary family. Working with this collection has been among the highlights of my professional career.”
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE COLLECTION
The Sassoon Collection is led by two highly important parcel-gilt silver Torah shields from the 18th century, representing the most important pieces of Judaic metalwork to appear at auction in a generation. These superb jewel-like works of art, probably made in Lemberg (Lviv) – an important 18th century Jewish center in modern-day Ukraine – are not only extraordinary in their craftsmanship, but are now attributable to the Jewish silversmith, Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav. As Jews of Western Europe were, for the most part, barred from joining the guilds. this is an extraordinary document from the era of the Enlightenment, and the date and signature of the artist represent a proud proclamation of Jewish artistry.
Although the artist’s name appears only on one shield, their matching and highly distinctive decoration allows us to attribute both to him, in addition to a similar third shield (now in the Israel Museum), that was offered by the Sassoons through Sotheby’s Tel Aviv in 2000, and achieved the then record-breaking price of almost $800,000.
The shields were in the collection of Reuben David Sassoon, who lent them to the aforementioned 1887 Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in London. However, the full story and historic significance of these three works could not be deduced until now, when the two companion shields have appeared - for the first time since the historic 1906 Whitechapel exhibition Jewish Art and Antiquities.
The two shields evoke in miniature the towering carved wooden Torah Arks of Eastern European synagogues, and are intricately engraved on the backs: on one , scenes from the story of Isaac are displayed in an exuberant rococo setting (estimate $600/900,000), and on the other the artist has engraved a highly detailed plan of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem from a birds eye perspective (estimate $500/800,000).
Most of the manuscripts derive from the collection of the famous bibliophile David Solomon Sassoon, with examples showcasing the reach of Jewish culture. Among the important books and manuscripts in the collection are a small group of items related to the great Rabbi Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad (1834-1909) – one of the most prominent halakhic authorities and kabbalists of Iraqi Jewry in the 19th and 20th century. Often described as “the preeminent kabbalist of Baghdad,” and referred to as the ‘Ben Ish Hai’ – after his most popular literary work, Sefer ben ish hai – he played an important role in simplifying and popularizing kabbalistic concepts and practices among the masses throughout the Middle East.
The star highlight is a Siddur, or daily prayer book, owned by Rabbi Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad (estimate $100/200,000). Containing the prayers for much of the liturgical year, accompanied by an anthologized Kabbalistic commentary, it is distinguished not only by the high quality of its penmanship and condition, but by the presence of several notes and comments written by the rabbi himself.
The collection also includes two pairs of Tefillin (phylacteries) that belonged to Rabbi Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad (estimate $150/250,000). Following the rabbi’s death in 1909, David Solomon penned a letter to the rabbi’s son wishing him consolation and asking him if he could gift his father’s tefillin as a memento. No other examples of tefillin belonging to R. Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad are known to exist.
The collection also features several Yemenite manuscript copies of works by Rabbi Moses Maimonides (Rambam; 1138-1204), one of the most illustrious Jewish figures of all time. Born in Cordoba, Spain, he fled persecution at the hands of the Almohads in the late 1140s, eventually moving first to Fez, Morocco, and later settling in Cairo, where he remained until his death. His reputation rests upon his excellence in a wide variety of fields. Not only was he a halakhist and communal leader of the first rank, he also wrote highly important works of medicine and Jewish philosophy that, like the rest of his oeuvre, achieved wide circulation.
This group is led by a copy of Rabbi Moses Maimonides’ Judeo-Arabic commentary on Seder mo‘ed, the second Order of the Mishnah (lestimate $25/35,000). It is one of only ten known copies of Maimonides’ original Judeo-Arabic commentary on Seder mo‘ed from before the fifteenth century, and the only one remaining in private hands.
The sale also includes an exceptionally well executed and preserved Miniature Torah Scroll from the 19th century, outfitted with elegant silver-gilt and silk accoutrements (estimate $80/120,00). While most communal scrolls used in synagogues for ritual purposes are large and heavy, ones for private devotion tend to be diminutive and portable, allowing their owners not only to store them more easily, but also to transport them from place to place. Naturally, the degree of proficiency required to produce a small scroll like the present one was beyond the ability of most skilled scribes – making such scrolls highly rare and greatly prized.
Additional objects in the sale reflect the personal tastes, luxurious lifestyles and the international range of this legendary family. One finds pieces of family artifacts such as the magnificent silk robe Ezekiel ben Joshua Gubbay (1824-1896) wore upon his marriage to Aziza Sassoon (1839-1897) (estimate $2/4,000); the ketubbah used at the wedding of Reuben David Sassoon and Catherine Ezekiel, members of two of the greatest Baghdadi merchant families in India (estimate $10/20,000); a silver memorial plaque for Lady Anne Sassoon, wife of Sir Albert (Abdullah) David Sassoon (estimate $2/3,000); a signet ring used by David Solomon Sassoon (estimate $2/3,000), and a golden medal presented to Lady Rachel Sassoon Ezra by the Governor of Bengal in 1947 (estimate $1,000/1,500).