The greatest collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts in private hands went on display at Sotheby's this week.

The Valmadonna Trust is displaying 11,000 documents of unparalleled significance, including a 16th century Hebrew Bible once owned by Westminster Abbey.

Many of them have burns or water marks, or other signs of religious persecution.

The complete library is valued at more than $40m, and it is remarkable that these documents are being made available for sale.

The entire collection is being shown for the first time at Sotheby's Manhattan galleries until February 19.

"I don't know any other collection quite like it in private hands. It even rivals some of the great institutional collections in the world," Arthur Kiron, curator of Judaica collections at the University of Pennsylvania told ABC News.

"There are very few cultural moments like this one where a collection of such great significance is made available for sale."

The trust has asked Sotheby's to ensure that the collection will not be broken up, and that it is sold in its entirety to a public institution of private collector.

The Valmadonna library is the lifelong project of Jack Lunzer, 88, a collector from London. Lunzer will not benefit from the proceeds of the sale, which is being handled by the trust.

The trust will also decide whether to accept an offer from a collector or an institution.

"I would like our library to be acquired by the Library of Congress," he said. "That would be my great joy," said Mr Lunzer.

His most prized acquisition, which he pursued for more than 25 years, is a near-pristine complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud printed in 1519-1523 by Daniel Bomberg, a Christian.

Any institution that acquires the library will immediately be catapulted, "to one of the top-tier places of study of Hebrew culture," said Sharon Mintz, curator of Jewish art at the Jewish Theological Seminary which owns the largest public collection of Judaica in the US.

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