My uncle, the Count of Valmadonna


By Michael Orbach

Issue of Feb. 27, 2009 / 3 Adar 5769

My father, a theology professor turned software developer, a man who is generally inured to the trappings of wealth, has a favorite story regarding my great uncle Jack. Once while my father was dining at my uncle’s London home, my great uncle finished the main course, then placed his expensive china plate on the floor and called his dog. The dog, a runt named Toddy who pawed my uncle’s leg mercilessly throughout the meal, licked the plate clean.

My great aunt Ruth, needless to say, was not pleased.

My great uncle is Jack Lunzer, whose collection of 13,000 rare Hebrew books and manuscripts, collectively known as the Valmadonna Trust Library, was put on auction at Sotheby’s this past week for an asking price of $40 million. It is widely considered to be the finest collection of Hebrew books in private hands, all of which Jack amassed over six decades.

By the time I arrived at Sotheby’s at 11:00 a.m. on the final day of the exhibit, a queue had formed on the first floor. The maximum occupancy for the exhibit was 200 and a Sotheby’s attendant explained to me that they had already had 600 visitors that morning alone. I rode the elevator up with a high school Rabbi and his female students. On the way to the 10th floor, he explained to them how the Bomberg Talmud was acquired.

King Henry VIII, hoping to find a religious precept to divorce his wife, commissioned a set of Bomberg Talmud. By the time the set arrived years later, Henry had founded the Church of England and the Bomberg Talmud, already paid for, was no longer required. The set was sent to Westminster Abbey and virtually ignored. Jack discovered the set in 1956 and spent the next 25 years unsuccessfully attempting to convince Westminster Abbey to let him purchase it. In the 1970s, Jack obtained the Abbey’s 900 year-old charter and “donated” it to the Abbey in exchange for the Bomberg Talmud. According to lore, when the Westminster curator heard about the charter and opened the door to see my great uncle outside the Abbey, he said: “Mr. Lunzer, we have been expecting you.”

In the Sotheby’s gallery, each volume of the Bomberg Talmud was open behind a pane of thick glass. I read the beginning of Pesachim, the mishna that demands the checking of the chametz by the light of the 14th, the words still clear after nearly 500 years. Another volume had small empty spaces for the diagrams that the printers, still in their infancy, weren’t sophisticated enough to create. The layout of the Bomberg Talmud, Rashi on the right and Tosafot on the left, became the norm for all printed editions of Talmud afterwards. Jack’s set was in almost perfect condition and it is one of the few complete sets of the Bomberg Talmud left in the world. Looking at it, one feels the literal echo of Kafka’s statement: “What is the Talmud, if not a message from the distance.”

While the set may be the jewel of the collection, the collection spans the Jewish Diaspora. The oldest work, a Chumash (Bible) from the first half of the 12th century, is the only Hebrew book from England that can be dated before the Jewish expulsion in 1290. Inside another glass case was a Samaritan Torah scroll and the first book printed in Turkey, a copy of the Arba Turim from 1493. Of the Hebrew books printed in the 15th century, known as incunable after the Latin word for swaddling and referring to the birth of printing, Jack has half of the 170 works known to exist. The Valmadonna Trust also houses two thirds of all Hebrew books printed in the 16th century.

Menachem Butler, writer of Michtavim, a blog dedicated to academic Jewish studies, alluding to a Talmudic adage, commented that one “who hadn’t seen the Valmadonna Trust Library… hadn’t seen the true literary grandeur of the Jewish people.”

The name of the collection is incidental; Valmadonna was a hamlet where Jack’s friend lived. The friend asked Jack to purchase the deed to the town, which he did, thereby becoming the Count of Valmadonna. Having the collection named after the small town has given it a type of prominence it never would have been able to attain.

Until the Sotheby’s exhibit, I had never met my great uncle. He was married to my mother’s aunt who passed away before I was born. Her death occurred in an 18 month span that saw the death of two of her brothers, each spaced evenly six months apart. I wonder if it is the nature of the deaths that spurred the reach of the collection. The collection maintains an illusion of permanence; it says that we have survived for so long and we will continue. I wonder if Jack thought this while his wife and her two brothers passed away across Europe.

I also wonder if the failure of this illusion is the motive for the sale. Jack is 84 and even though his family is prodigiously well-lived –– his sister, 10 years older, visited the gallery two days before my visit –– no one, not even the greatest bibliophile, can live forever. “My age is upon me,” Jack told The New York Times.

By the time I saw him on the last day of the event, Jack was worn out but still in good spirits. Silver-haired with a regal bearing, he was dressed in a beige checkered jacket and wore a crocheted white kippah that looked like a thick bride’s veil. As I watched, he greeted everyone effusively, bantering with the men, speaking Yiddish with Chasidim, and flirting good-naturedly with the women.

“What inspired you to start collecting?” A pretty young woman asked him.

Jack took both her hands. “Looking at people like you,” he said.

Most of the profiles written about Jack since the exhibit opened have focused on the serious elements of his character, the determination and drive emblematic of a man who single-handedly assembled a collection of the rarest books in the world, a man given to grave and scholarly statements. But there is a mischievous side to Jack as well, the side that places china plates on the ground for a thorough licking by a family dog.

Asked why he started collecting books, Jack replied, “Because they don’t answer you back.” And later in the café when asked again: “I had to start collecting something. I started with racehorses but it didn’t work out.” Asked how he attained the Westminster charter, Jack told the curious questioner that he stole the crown jewels.

One small child who skipped around Jack asked if Jack knew the boy’s father.

“Why, do I owe him money?” Jack shot back.

Jack is distinctly not old. To use a cliché of Jack being young at heart would not do him justice. Perhaps being around so many old books that survived the travails of bloody centuries has given him a curious kind of immortality. Greeting visitors in Sotheby’s with his daughter on his arm, Jack looked like a kind of benevolent saint. Chasidic children sang him Yiddish songs at his request and he waved his hands to the music, while a perplexed Sotheby security guard nervously kept watch. Eventually the guard’s foot unwillingly began to tap.

At the time of this writing, the collection had not been sold yet, though in the words of David Wachtel, a consultant for Sotheby’s and the senior consultant for special collections at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Valmadonna Trust Library at $40 million is a “bargain.” Wachtel likened the auction to the Jewish belief in the Messiah. If the sale comes today, wonderful; if not, it will be sold another day.

When I asked Jack what he planned to do now that what could be considered his life’s work is being sold, he grinned.

“Play hockey,” he said.

As the last day wore on and the final hours of the exhibit approached, Jack walked with his daughter to the elevator bank, surrounded by groups of well-wishers; he looked like the Grand Rabbi of Sotheby’s, still the owner of the largest private collection of rare Hebrew books, but only for a few more days.

The last Count of Valmadonna saying good-bye.