arts and design

Sassoon family collection of Jewish artefacts to be sold at auction

An unparalleled collection of Judaica amassed by one of the greatest Jewish dynasties in the world and not seen in public for over a century is to be sold at auction.

The trove of 68 items includes silver objects, Hebrew manuscripts and family artefacts collected by the Sassoon family. Some items date back to the 11th century, and they originate from countries from east Asia to western Europe.

“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,” said John Ward of Sotheby’s in New York, which is presenting the sale.

Portrait of David Sassoon.
Portrait of David Sassoon. Photograph: Sotheby’s New York

The highlight of Sassoon: A Golden Legacy is two silver Torah shields from the 18th century. According to Sotheby’s, the “superb jewel-like works of art” represent “the most important pieces of Judaic metalwork to appear at auction in a generation”.

The shields – the work of Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav, a Jewish silversmith – are intricately engraved, depicting the carved wooden Torah arks of eastern European synagogues. On the back of one is a highly detailed plan of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

They were probably made in Lemberg (Lviv) in Ukraine, and are estimated to fetch up to $900,000 each.

The sale also includes books and manuscripts, including a Siddur, or daily prayer book, owned and annotated by Rabbi Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad, who died in 1909. Two pairs of Tefillin – leather boxes and straps worn by Orthodox Jewish men on their head and arm during weekday morning prayer – owned by Rabbi Hayyim are estimated to fetch up to $250,000.

The personal items in the sale reflect the “tastes, luxurious lifestyles and the international range of this legendary family”, Sotheby’s said.

The ketubbah, or marriage contract, of the wedding between Reuben David Sassoon and Catherine Ezekial, a union of two of the greatest Baghdadi merchant families in India, is estimated at $10,000-$20,000. A magnificent silk robe worn at another Sassoon wedding and a signet ring are also for sale.

The Sassoon family – known as the “Rothschilds of the east” – had its roots in Baghdad but relocated to India in the 1830s to build a vast trading empire, becoming one of the world’s wealthiest families. Its patriarch, David Sassoon, opened branches of his company in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Rangoon.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many members of the family moved to England, embedding in high society and engaging in philanthropy, politics and patronage of the arts.

An important Torah shield attributed to Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav, circa 1780.
An important Torah shield attributed to Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav, circa 1780. Photograph: Sotheby’s New York

Siegfried Sassoon, one of the foremost poets of the first world war, was David’s great-grandson. Another descendent, Rachel Sassoon Beer, became the first female editor of a national newspaper when she took the helm at the Observer in 1891.

Sharon Liberman Mintz, senior consultant of books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s, said: “The distinguished pedigree, superior quality and historical importance of this collection leaves me breathless.”

The silver shields were, she said, the most extraordinary objects she had ever encountered, and the sale meant the public would be able to see “these beautiful pieces” for the first time.

The auction is due to take place on 17 December in New York.


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