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Centuries-old Jewish prayer book smashes expectations at UK auction

A rare centuries-old Jewish prayer book has sold at auction for several times the expected price, surprising the sellers who only had it assessed “by chance” alongside a Harry Potter book.

The volume had been estimated at between £5,000 and £10,000, but the winning bid was £57,000. With the buyer’s premium, the total price paid was £71,250.

The sellers were retired teachers Susan and Martin Wilson from Cumbria, in northwest England.

According to the Lancs Live outlet, three international bidders competed by phone to buy the book, which was sold on September 5. Reports did not identify any of the bidders, or who made the eventual purchase.

“It was with a degree of incredulity that we watched the sale,” Martin told the outlet. “We are a little stunned by the outcome.”

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The Wilsons had taken a Harry Potter book to be assessed by Hanson’s Auctioneer and only brought the Hebrew volume along as an afterthought.

“We were selling a Harry Potter book with Hansons and, by chance, took the prayer book with us to show their books expert Jim Spencer,” Martin said in a report from Fine Books Magazine. “He took an interest in it and organized expert consideration.”

“It was shown to me as something of an afterthought,” Spencer said.

“The vendor visited me to consign a Harry Potter book,” he said.

“However, before we shook hands to leave, he pulled this little leather case out of his bag and asked me if it was anything worth looking at. I was completely bowled over by it. It’s beautiful,” he said.

Ilana Tahan, lead curator of Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections at the British Library, came to examine the book.

In addition, “one man from London came to view it and his reaction on studying it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck,” Spencer said.

“He just kept saying, ‘this is so important.’ He was completely in awe. I’ve never had a client appreciate an object like that before,” Spencer said.

The tome originally belonged to Susan’s uncle who lived in Amsterdam, and went to his wife after he died. She passed away last summer, aged 98, at which point it was passed on to Susan.

“We think it’s been in the family for around 50 years,” Martin said in the report.

The title page shows Moses holding the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, with his brother Aaron in the clothes of the High Priest.

The books contents include Sabbath hymns, the prayer for the New Moon, and songs of praise.

A Hebrew inscription in the book says it belonged to Abraham ben [son of] Meir Emden, along with the date 13th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, 517 [meaning 5517 in the Hebrew date system], which corresponds to February 3, 1757.

Though there is no proof, the inscription suggests the possibility that it belonged to the grandson of prominent German rabbi and Talmudist Jacob Emden (1697-1776).

Meir Emden (1717-1795) was himself a rabbi and av beit din (senior jurist) at Constantine in the Ukraine, according to the report from Fine Books and Magazine.