Valmadonna's collection of Hebrew books struggles to find home

Judaica collectors examine some of the Valmadonna treasures on display at Sotheby’s, New York, this year

Judaica collectors examine some of the Valmadonna treasures on display at Sotheby’s, New York, this year

The compiler of the world’s finest private collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts still hopes to find a new home for them, preferably in the UK.

Since February, the 13,000 volumes in Jack Lunzer’s Valmadonna Trust Library have been with Sotheby’s in New York, awaiting a buyer.

But now the 85-year-old bibliophile believes that the proposed new Jewish Community Centre in North-West London being built by Dame Vivien Duffield would make an ideal place to rehouse them.

“It would be wonderful if the library could stay in England”, said Mr Lunzer, who lives in Hampstead.

The collection, which he wants to ensure remains intact, has been “conservatively valued” at $40-50 million. “Then there would need to be an endowment to go with it, because maintenance is not cheap,” he said.

According to David Redden, vice-chairman of Sotheby’s, 200 rare Hebrew books and manuscripts would form a collection in its own right but “to have 13,000 of these books is overwhelming”.

Jack Lunzer

Jack Lunzer

When the books went to New York, Sotheby’s arranged an exhibition — which can still be seen online on video — which attracted considerable public interest, but as yet no buyer.

“What I did expect, which was not forthcoming, was some institutional interest,” Mr Lunzer said.

A few years ago, the library had seemed destined for the Library of Congress in the US but, he explained, in the midst of raising the funds to acquire it, “there was a slump and people withdrew their commitments”.

The library’s trustees would be prepared to make a contribution towards the cost if a buyer could be found.

Ranging from the Mediterranean to India and the Arab world, the books document the history of Hebrew printing: among them is the first printed book in Africa in any language, the Sefer Abudarham from 1516.

Sharon Mintz, Judaica consultant to Sotheby’s, has observed: “There is not an aspect of Jewish culture during the last ten centuries that is not recorded in this collection.”

Half of the world’s Hebrew incunabula — early printed books before 1500 — belong to Valmadonna, which was named after a town in Italy with which Mr Lunzer’s family was associated.

Its treasures include the only surviving Hebrew manuscript from England before the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 — a Five Books of Moses dating from 1189. There is also a complete set of the Babylonian Talmud by the master 16th century printer Daniel Bomberg, which Mr Lunzer retrieved from a dusty corner of Westminster Abbey, said to be the volumes ordered from Europe by Henry VIII, desperate to find a precedent for divorcing his first wife.

A diamond merchant, Mr Lunzer built the collection over seven decades from a few hundred volumes originally owned by his late wife Ruth’s family.

“I have held every one,” he said. “I decided if they needed binding, repair or washing. If ever we saw a book in better condition than our shelf copy, we would always try to upgrade.”

For 25 years, the collection has been tended by a full-time librarian and was housed in Mr Lunzer’s home. And although it currently lies across the Atlantic, he has not been entirely denuded of its presence; the shelves downstairs in his home have been stacked with cleverly taken photographs of the originals.

    Last updated: 5:28pm, November 12 2009