A rare Jewish manuscript created for the Oppenheimer banking dynasty is expected to be sold to a foreign collector when it comes up for auction next week. It was discovered forgotten in a soup box in a semi-detached house in north Manchester.
The Haggadah (a book read by Jews on the first night of Passover) dates from 1726 and is exquisitely illustrated by one of Judaism’s most famous scribes. Its late owners brought it to Britain as they fled the Nazis before the Second World War. It is expected to fetch up to £500,000.
The price tag for the 20-leaf text is expected to make it unaffordable to British institutions and communities although Jewish scholars are calling for its eventual buyer to put it on public display.
It was discovered by Bill Forrest, an auctioneer, during a routine valuation at a home in Bury, Greater Manchester, this year. The owner died in 2007 and her niece, who wishes to remain anonymous, wanted to sell some of the items she had inherited.
Mr Forrest stumbled across the Haggadah buried among other books inside an Osem kosher soup carton in the garage. The family had no idea it was there.
“The thing that stood out when I first handled it was the quality and skill that went into it. It is finely handwritten with a quill and beautifully illustrated,” he said. “The family are still shell-shocked,” he added.
The velum manuscript, which contains more than 50 coloured scenes from the Torah, was taken to Amsterdam where an expert concluded it was the work of Aaron Wolff Herlingen, scribe to the Imperial Court in Vienna in the mid-18th century.
It is believed it was commissioned to mark the birth of Emanuel Mendel Oppenheimer, the first child of Samuel Emanuel Oppenheimer of Vienna and a close descendant of the great banker and imperial court diplomat Samuel Oppenheimer.
It is not known what happened to the manuscript, although it has been in the present family for a century. They smuggled it out of Belgium before the Nazi invasion in 1940, eventually settling among the orthodox community in Manchester.
Dr Yaakov Wise, of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester, said the discovery was “miraculous”. Over the past 300 years of tumultuous and blood-soaked Jewish history many items of Judaica have been lost in Europe or deliberately destroyed.
“It is very, very lucky that it survived from that period. It is a miracle that it was not thrown out, that it was found and someone realised what it was. I would call it divine providence,” Dr Wise said.
“It would be very nice if it went into a Jewish museum, to a library or a university where the public or scholars can go and see it,” he added.
“This was probably in use for 200 years. There are wine and food stains on it which is exactly what you would expect when it was at the table. It is easy to imagine the wealthy family in Vienna sitting around in their wigs and their buckled shoes reading it by candlelight,” Dr Wise said.
Another, larger, Haggadah by Aaron Wolf Herlingen describing the Exodus was sold in the United States this year for $800,000 (£496,000).