Sotheby’s Presents the Sassoon Judaica Collection This December

Liz Catalano
Published on

Colloquially known as the “Rothschilds of the East,” the Sassoon family has a long history at auction. An upcoming Sotheby’s sale, held on December 17th, 2020, at 10:00 AM EST, marks the 50th anniversary of their association with the auction house. Nearly 70 lots from the Sassoon Judaica collection will be on offer, including important Jewish manuscripts, religious objects, and textiles. 

“We are incredibly privileged to present the Sassoon collection,” John Ward, the Head of Sotheby’s New York Silver Department, said in a press release. “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.” 

A parcel-gilt silver and enamel Torah shield from the Sassoon family collection (front and back). Image from Sotheby’s.
A parcel-gilt silver and enamel Torah shield from the Sassoon family collection (front and back). Image from Sotheby’s.

The Sassoon Judaica collection was built across multiple generations and national borders. Reuben David Sassoon, the fourth son of the family’s patriarch, began building the now-famous collection of ceremonial art in the 1860s. He was already a well-established London businessman and socialite when he acquired the Judaica collection of Philip Salomons, a fellow leader in the local Jewish community. Sassoon used and displayed many of Salomons’ ceremonial items in his private synagogue. He also loaned many of the items to cultural institutions and special events, including the 1887 Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall. 

After Reuben David Sassoon’s death, Flora Gubbay Sassoon, his grand-niece, took over the collection. A 1906 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition marked the last time that many of the items appeared in public. The book and manuscript portion of the Sassoon Judaica collection was later built by David Solomon Sassoon, Flora’s son. He was an avid scholar and collector of illuminated texts, ancient manuscripts, and printed books. David acquired many of these works from private collectors and at Sotheby’s auctions. 

David Solomon Sassoon with the Polish silver Torah ark from Reuben David Sassoon’s collection. Image from Sotheby’s.
David Solomon Sassoon with the Polish silver Torah ark from Reuben David Sassoon’s collection. Image from Sotheby’s.

Judaica from the Sassoon collection first hit the Sotheby’s auction block in 1970. Since then, the family has regularly partnered with the auction house to offer Judaica sales in London, New York, Zurich, and Tel Aviv. Sotheby’s is among the few international auction houses with a permanent Judaica Department and offers at least one sale in the category each year. 

The upcoming event will bring many notable items from the Sassoon Judaica collection back into public view. One key lot is a parcel-gilt silver and enamel Torah shield. This ceremonial breastplate is traditionally suspended over the front of the Torah scroll. Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav, a late 18th-century goldsmith, created the shield for a private patron and signed it in Hebrew. A similar shield, also signed by Elimelekh, was sold at Sotheby’s for a record-breaking USD 800,000 in 2000. The present example has an estimate of $600,000 to $900,000.

Miniature Torah scroll with silver-gilt finials, shield, and pointer. Image from Sotheby’s.
Miniature Torah scroll with silver-gilt finials, shield, and pointer. Image from Sotheby’s.

Other notable lots include a daily prayer book owned by Rabbi Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad, one of the most prominent Jewish spiritual leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries ($100,000 – $200,000). Also available is a miniature Torah scroll that measures under three inches high and over 28 feet long. Designed for portability, this scroll has a gold-woven mantle and silver-gilt finials. Its auction estimate is $80,000 to $120,000. 

“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,” Sotheby’s Senior Consultant of Books and Manuscripts, Sharon Liberman Mintz, said about the sale. “Working with this collection has been among the highlights of my professional career.”

Sotheby’s upcoming auction of items from the Sassoon Judaica collection will begin at 10:00 AM EST on December 17th, 2020. Find the complete catalog and register to bid on the auction house’s website

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