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From Donation Bin to Sotheby's: How a Rare 19th-Century Bible Almost Got Away

John Marks volunteers with the group Friends of Knight Memorial Library, and found himself pricing donated books for a vintage book sale to benefit Knight Memorial Library in Providence, Rhode Island. Last year he priced a five-volume Torah called The Law of God at $100, since there were no guidelines for the set. Luckily, no one bought it.

Marks: On Saturday, it went out for the live sale. A couple hundred people walked right past it. Doug and I thought it had potential, so we stood off to the side and watched, but nobody even looked at it. So Doug asked me if I would put it up on eBay using my personal account, since I buy and sell stuff all the time. I said, “Sure, but I can’t do it immediately because I’m not going to put something on my own eBay account unless I really know what I’m talking about.”

I must have been having writer’s block or something because I started looking into it that Monday. I started on eBay, looking up the completed sales, but there was nothing. I thought, “This thing didn’t come from a UFO, let’s see what Wikipedia has to say.” And it was there that I learned that “The Law of God” was the first English-Hebrew, facing-page translation by a Jew rather than a Protestant. This was major; this had to be worth something. Since the book had been published in Philadelphia, I did a search of all the Jewish booksellers in Pennsylvania, and sure enough, I found one that had sold a Leeser Pentateuch—for $6,500.

The Law of God is going up for auction in June, and is expected to bring between $4,000 and $6,000. Marks went deeper into the history of the five volumes, printed in both English and Hebrew, and of Isaac Leeser, who wrote the translation. We also get a look at what it was like to be Jewish in America during the Civil War, at Collectors Weekly.

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