Sephardi siddur up for sale at Sotheby’s

Sephardi siddur up for sale at Sotheby’s

For the JC Oct 26 2019

One of the rarest examples of early English Judaica, a handwritten Sephardi siddur, or prayer book, is up for sale at Sotheby’s in New York next month.

And the siddur is thought to be one of only four such books in existence. It was last sold in 1998 in New York at Christie’s, when the collector Arthur Marx bought it for $40,000.

It was a shrewd buy — because Sotheby’s, which is selling more than 300 items from the Arthur and Gitel Marx Judaica Collection, has estimated the siddur will sell for between $200,000 and $300,000. The dedicated auction of books, manuscripts, silver and paintings represent the fruits of 50 years of collecting by Arthur Marx and his wife, illustrating Jewish history from the 15th to the 20th centuries.

The siddur, by far the most important item in the books and manuscripts section of the sale, is thought to have been handwritten in London between 1730 and 1750. It  is one of the earliest known translations of the Sephardi prayer book into English. 

This siddur went on display at the 1887 Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition. Almost 70 years later it made an appearance at the 1956 Anglo-Jewish Art and History Exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum, marking the tercentenary of the resettlement of Jews in England.

The Marx siddur is one of four copies, probably made at the same time, is beautifully decorated and in very good condition. Another copy was identified by the University of Lincoln academic Dr Aaron Sterk just over four years ago, while researching in Manchester’s John Rylands Library.

That copy, he said, was “very English-looking and beautifully bound. It has a beautiful gilt black Morocco leather binding, with gilded edges to the pages, a green silk page-marker and lovely crimson and gold foil ‘brocade’ endpapers with an embossed floral design. The book has been written by hand, by a professional penman in an italic hand with Gothic titles.” Dr Sterk believes the “professional penman” was probably not Jewish because there are many mistakes in the siddur.

Dr Sterk was cataloguing the books and papers of Rabbi Dr Moses Gaster, who served as the Haham or presiding rabbi, of Britain’s Spanish and Portuguese community, between 1887 and 1919. The Rylands Library acquired a number of manuscripts and books from the Gaster collection in 1954, and it was among this material that Dr Sterk found one of the four known siddurim.

What all four copies have in common is that they are English translations of a Spanish version of Hebrew prayers. The Spanish version was first created between 1552 and 1556, originally for the use of Marrano Jews who had fled the Inquisition — and needed prayers in Ladino Spanish because they no longer understood Hebrew.

As for the other two copies, one, belonging to Bevis Marks Synagogue, is now in the London Metropolitan Archives. But mystery still surrounds the known fourth siddur, which vanished in the 19th century — and has never been seen since. So the rarity of the Marx siddur only adds to its projected sale price.

  • 29 October, 2019