Rare book returned to the Jewish Museum in Prague

A long-missing first edition of a book on language was found in an auction catalog

The Jewish Museum in Prague and the New York City-based auction house Kestenbaum & Company took joint measures that led to the return of a 16th-century book that had been missing from the museum’s library collections.

The book was listed in an auction catalogue, but was withdrawn when it first seemed to match a specific missing book that had distinctive stamps and markings.

A restitution ceremony will take place Jan. 16 at the Education and Culture Centre of the Jewish Museum in Prague. Daniel E. Kestenbaum will return the book to Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Kestenbaum & Company specializes in the sale of Western and Oriental books, manuscripts and fine Judaica,

The book is the first edition of Mikneh Avram-Peculium Abrae by Abraham ben Meir de Balmes. It was printed in Hebrew and Latin by Daniel Bomberg in Venice in 1523. The book is an attempt at a philosophical analysis of the construction of the Hebrew language, looking at syntax as a special element of grammar.

Ben Meir de Balmes, who lived between circa 1460 and 1523, was a Jewish physician, linguist and philosopher from Lecce in southern Italy. Toward the end of his life, he served as a physician to Cardinal Domenico Grimani of Venice. He also translated Hebrew works on philosophy and astronomy into Latin and had a following of Christian pupils.

The book had previously been in the possession of Professor Ze'ev Ben-Haim, president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. It is not known how or when Ze’ev Ben-Haim acquired the book.

After Ben-Haim’s death in 2013 at the age of 105, the book was purchased by a younger Israeli scholar who wishes to remain anonymous. This scholar subsequently consigned the book to be sold at auction.

Kestenbaum & Company listed the book to be sold on March 16, 2017. The Jewish Museum in Prague saw that the book had come from the pre-war Library of the Prague Jewish Community, which is among the museum’s assets.

The auction house withdrew the book and reached an agreement with the young Israeli scholar to return the book to the Jewish Museum in Prague.

A museum librarian spotted the lot in the online auction catalogue during a routine check. Photos of the book showed the stamp of the Prague Jewish Community’s library (Prager Israelitische Cultus-Gemeinde Bibliothek) and the library’s call number 2.634. These matched the entries in the pre-war catalogue by librarian Tobias Jakobovits.

The Jewish Museum in Prague contacted the auction house with a plea for the return of the book. Daniel E. Kestenbaum withdrew the item from auction. In the weeks that followed, Kestenbaum reached an agreement with the book’s consignor on its restitution. The Jewish Museum in Prague said it greatly appreciates the helpful approach taken by Kestenbaum & Company to restore Jewish heritage to it, rightful owners.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) are assisting the restitution. The groups facilitate the return of Judaica plundered during the Holocaust

“Where institutions such as the Jewish Museum in Prague and the Jewish Community of Prague existed before World War II and then immediately after the Shoah, items that were plundered from them should be returned to them. … The restitution to the Jewish Museum in Prague that has been brokered by Mr Kestenbaum is a praiseworthy act by him and by the consignor of the book,” Dr Wesley A. Fisher, head of Claims Conference-WJRO Looted Art stated.

Nearly all of the movable cultural property of Jewish communities, associations and corporations in what was then the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was shipped to what is now the Jewish Museum in Prague between 1942 and 1945.

According to the museum, it is likely that pieces of Judaica of Bohemian provenance that are currently available in the art market may be missing items that belong to the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic as the only legal successor to the former Jewish entities in the territory of today's Czech Republic.

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