I could only see the tip of what was coming out of the woman’s shopping bag, but I knew it was going to be very special.
In Spring 2006 I was emceeing what I call the Jewish Antiques Appraisal Show at Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, New York. After a slide show on antique Judaica collecting, I invited congregants to show their Jewish treasures handed down from Bubbie or Zayde and often buried in their closets.
Out of the shopping bag came a 12" silver spice tower which this woman’s grandfather had brought from Poland to the United States. Decorated with intricately hand-carved animals, trees, and other organic designs, it was one of the most ornate pieces I had seen in my 25-year career as an appraiser and auctioneer of fine antique Judaica.
“I would pay approximately $50,000 for this piece,” I told her.
Her astonished head turned like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist.
Still, she decided not to relinquish the spice box she described as “part of her family’s history.” But now she would have it insured.
Sometimes Judaica sales can be bittersweet. A victim of the Bernie Madoff scandal, Rhea Schindler, widow of former Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, needed to part with two very rare pieces. The first was an 80% fine silver Torah crown which her husband had received in the early 90s as a gift from the Union, and the second an exceptionally rare 18th-century Dutch Parcel gilt Torah pointer decorated with three diamonds, his retirement gift. Working pro bono, I catalogued the items and learned about the great Jewish leader who had been honored with these treasures. The media caught wind of the story, and within two weeks, Judaica collecting was a feature on CNN, Fox News, The Daily News, Crains New York, The Post ’s PAGE 6, and The New York Times.
The June 2009 auction, featuring the two Schindler items, garnered worldwide interest.
The Torah crown opened at $7,000, rose in $500 increments, and sold for $9,000 to the Jewish Museum of Berlin, its tribute to the legacy of Rabbi Schindler, who was born in Munich, Germany in 1925.
Starting at $6,000, the Torah pointer was bid up to $15,000 within the first few seconds—and ended at $23,000! Its new owner, an anonymous New York collector, was not only touched by the pointer’s beauty and its intrinsic value, but by its illustrious provenance.
Unfortunately, people sometimes need to sell Judaica. In this instance, I could assure the Schindler family that the new owners would treat these sacred objects with the utmost reverence.
Then there was the 19th-century etrog container (used to house the citron, the first of the four species, on Sukkot) from our January 2010 auction. I knew this was going to be a sought-after piece when I spotted it (and arranged for its consignment) a few months earlier in a New York antique gallery. The only other time I had ever seen this model was in the Furman family collection (pictured in Treasures of Jewish Art: The Collection of Jacobo and Asea Furman ).
In Judaism there is a concept known as hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the mitzvah with art. Traditionally, to fulfill this mitzvah during Sukkot, Jews purchased specially crafted silver etrog containers. This one was made in Germany around 1830 by an unknown artisan. Unlike painters, silversmiths generally did not (and do not) mark their pieces with their names, only the town hallmark.
The auction started with an $18,000 bid. Two zealous Judaica collectors waged a fierce bidding war, knowing such a piece would probably never again come on the auction block. The hammer finally went down at $32,500.
You do not have to be wealthy to collect Judaica. Many of the collectors I work with have built fine collections over time by purchasing beautiful objects in the $500–$5,000 range.
I find no greater pleasure in life than seeing my three sons make kiddush on Friday night, each holding the kiddush cup I acquired for him. They know that these cups are endowed with kedusha (holiness), having been used for more than 150 years by Jews living in the very lands from which our family emigrated to the United States.
Owning a piece of Judaica that you can both display and use connects you with your mesorah (heritage). And when you know an object’s history, you can almost feel the call of your ancestors.
Perhaps because of the emotional power of these cultural heirlooms, buyers are wise to exercise due diligence before making a purchase. A cautionary tale: After about a year of buying Judaica objects from Israel which he had previewed electronically, a trusting friend invited me to his home in New Jersey to see his 40-piece collection.
As we stood side by side in his dining room, I asked, “Do you want to know the truth about your collection? Or should I go out now for kosher Chinese?”
“Tell me the truth,” he said, wanting to know immediately.
“Thirty-three of the pieces are recent forgeries with fake markings.”
Crushed, the novice collector listened as I reviewed each piece with him, explaining why, both technically and historically, these objects were fake. On many pieces, the oxidation of the silver was purple, a tell-tale sign that they were not antiques; also, very few conformed to the artistic style of the period in which they were purportedly created and used.
Fortunately, my friend was able to receive a refund for many (though not all) of the counterfeit pieces.
True antique Judaica is very rare. Hitler not only murdered our people but destroyed hundreds of years of European Jewish art and history. His henchmen looted silver and gold objects from both families and synagogues and melted them down. Very few objects survived. Most of what remains was saved by immigrants who escaped Europe before World War II.
With so few Judaica objects on the market, unscrupulous dealers, mostly in Israel, have made a business of crafting forgeries that they sell to unsuspecting tourists who come in to “buy a piece of their heritage.” If you are not a Judaica expert, you’re better off placing your trust in silversmiths and dealers who sell modern Judaica—the antiques of tomorrow.
Don’t let these stories deter you from collecting Judaica. To ensure you have genuine antiques, all you need to do is:
1. Only buy objects whose authenticity comes with a full, money-back warranty. Many auction houses offer warrantees as standard procedure. My company offers a lifetime warranty.
2. Consult an expert. If you email me a photograph of the antique Judaica you are about to purchase, I will authenticate it on the spot, with 95% accuracy, free of charge.
Jonathan Greenstein is the founder of J. Greenstein & Company, Inc., the world’s only auction house solely devoted to the sale of antique Jewish ritual objects, where he conducts two auctions a year as well as dozens of private sales to individuals, museums, and other institutions. Today he is often called upon by museum curators, large auction houses, and major collectors to authenticate Judaica, and travels throughout the States emceeing “The Jewish Antiques Appraisal Show” for synagogue fundraisers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.