Jack Lunzer’s Valmadonna Trust Hebraica Collection dispersed

Jack Lunzer’s success in the diamond business enabled him to pursue a lifelong passion – collecting Hebraica for his Valmadonna Trust Library. One of his most exciting finds was a 16th century Babylonian Talmud which Henry VIII requested to help him divorce Catherine of Aragon.

Unfortunately the Trustees of the collection sold the prize content of the collection to private hands after Jack died. These people should donate or at least lend to libraries the Babylonian Talmud, a 12th century Pentateuch and other major historic books and documents.

Thankfully the National Library of Israel has since acquired some 10,000 of Valmadonna’s historic Hebrew printed books and manuscripts. Visitors will be able to view and research the rare publications in a section devoted to Valmadonna.

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Revered for his pioneer work in creating a more competitive global diamond market, Jack Lunzer regarded Valmadonna Trust Library as his legacy.

Bibliophiles and scholars contend that when Jack was custodian of Valmadonna, it was the world’s greatest private collection of Hebraic books and ancient manuscripts. Experts in the rare book field believed that over a 60-year period, Jack acquired so much knowledge, that he was in effect both a bibliophile and curator.

“It seems that I was born holding a book,” Jack reflected.

The Library which was housed in Jack’s home until the collection was sold between 2015 and 2017 – initially contained around 13,000 books. They date from the 15th century onwards and the manuscripts as far back as the 8th and 9th centuries.

Included in the collection is a Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) with commentaries of Rashi and Maimonides and a Mishneh Torah printed by Soncino in 1490. A Pentateuch on vellum (parchment) is dated as far back as 1189. King Edward I expelled Jews from England in 1290 and this is the only surviving Hebrew manuscript belonging to English Jews prior to that date.

Jack displayed the books in tasteful, paneled bookcases that stood mostly in his living room, study and in a secure garden outbuilding which he called “Chatterley”. He and his librarian, Pauline Malkiel, nurtured the collection. They regularly had volumes restored and bound and beavered late into the night and on weekends.

Jack began collecting seriously in 1948 when he married his late wife Ruth. She came from Italy and her family descended from the Parenzos, distinguished 16th century printers. Italian Jewish printers were the first to print Hebrew bibles, the Talmud and other books.

“My wife encouraged me enormously,” Jack said. “She regarded the books as a history of the Jewish people.”

Valmadonna, named after a village in Piedmont, Northern Italy, is renowned for its collection of printed “Italo-Hebraica”, Jack explained.

Over the years, it extended to the entire field of Hebrew printing from the 15th and 16th centuries and beyond. It includes books from Holland, Spain and Eastern European cities such as Cracow, Lublin, Prague and Sofia. Ottoman imprints from Salonika (now called Thessalonika) in Macedonia and Constantinople, are well represented.

Valmadonna also has a celebrated collection of early Jerusalem printing, dating from 1841, when the first Hebrew press was established in the city. Jack, was also very fond of a collection of Hebrew books that were printed in India. He read ancient Hebrew texts and was an expert in early printing.

The Talmud Volumes and Henry VIII

Jack used to wax lyrical about Daniel Bomberg, a Calvinist who despite being a Protestant became the greatest 16 th century printer of Hebrew books. Jack narrated that Bomberg printed the first complete Babylonian Talmud in Venice between 1520 and 1523.

A few years later, Henry VIII failed to persuade the Pope to allow him to divorce Catherine of Aragon, The King sought religious precedents and was in correspondence with Venetian rabbis to seek Talmudic interpretations about marriage and separation.

“It is not widely known that the King was a Hebraist but in Deuteronomy, Chapter 24, he found that a man could ‘write a bill of divorce’,” Jack said.

The King ordered a copy from Bomberg. According to scholars, the nine volumes of the Talmud were shipped to England and bound in Oxford. By the time they arrived, however, the King was already married to Anne Boleyn. They gathered dust in the library of Westminster Abbey and centuries went by until Jack – ever the dogged detective – discovered their existence. He went to great lengths to acquire them – a key milestone in his lifelong quest.

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Protecting History

In a memoir Jack wrote that the harsh existence of Jewish printers is occasionally recorded in “colophons”; these are the imprints and comments of the printer in the final page of the books. Gershom Soncino, a leading printer, described the miseries of life as an itinerant printer in the Renaissance, packing up his type and moving from one place to another. “When we study the history of the Jews, we should not be surprised by the poor condition of many old Hebrew books,” Jack wrote. “Apart from the disasters that overtook them when their destruction was decreed by ecclesiastical or governmental edicts, many liturgical books were simply read to destruction.”

Sale of Valmadonna’s most expensive works

Jack was a generous collector and made items from Valmadonna available to Jewish and non-Jewish scholars and librarians. He also willingly shared his expansive knowledge, and funded Jewish educational and cultural institutions, as well as synagogues. It was Jack’s hope that an institution would eventually take over the Library in its entirety, so that the collection was protected.

Sadly, Jack developed Lewy Body Dementia in the final years of his life, so he lost control of Valmadonna. Its trustees decided to sell the most rare and famous books and manuscripts. In December 2015, Sotheby’s auctioned Bomberg’s Talmud for $9.3 million. The buyer is widely believed to be Leon Black, billionaire founder of Apollo Global Management, the US private equity firm. The Pentateuch of English Jews prior to their expulsion in the 13th century, was sold for $3.6 million to an undisclosed Swiss collector. Including seven other items, the entire Sotheby’s sale amounted to $14.87 million.

“Thankfully, part of Jack’s wishes came true. In January 2017, more than 10,000 items went to the National Library of Israel through a private sale arranged by Sotheby’s.
Hopefully Black and other private collectors will lend or donate their Valmadonna acquisitions to Israel’s library or the British Library. The 1189 English Pentateuch and the Babylonian Talmud are very much part of English history. Pauline Malkiel, Valmadonna Librarian for 35 years, confirmed that Jack would have wanted them to do so. When the entire collection was on display in Sotheby’s New York in 2009, thousands queued up to see it.”

As Jack often said, “The value of a book is not only in the text. They are part of history. From the covers to the pages, their form and beauty must be protected.”

Jack Lunzer (1924 – 2016)

© copyright Neil Behrmann

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