The Mona Lisa is arguably the most famous painting in the world. Visitors to the Louvre looking for a grand painting surrounded by nothing but light and space, are inevitably disappointed. In reality, the portrait is small and a little hard to find.
Before visiting The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection that is to be auctioned at Sotheby’s this Monday, April 29, I read a lot about it. I read about past Sotheby’s Judaica auctions, about the Steinhardts, and about their collection. Praise was effusive. In the press release, Sotheby’s calls the sale “the most significant collection of Judaica to be offered at auction in half a century.” Forbes Life quotes Elka Deitsch, senior curator of the Bernard Museum at Temple Emanu-El, as saying: “We haven’t seen something like this in breadth and depth and scale and scope for 50 years.” Hearty praise, indeed.
With all that hype and build up, I was expecting to be a little let down. But I was not disappointed in the least.
I will go as far as to say that I think Cissy Grossman is genius. Grossman is the curator of the Steinhardt’s Judaica collection who made extremely strategic choices that come across as effortless. The piece de resistance is unquestioningly the Frankfurt Mishneh Torah, circa 1457-1465, and fittingly, it ends the exhibit. But it is visible from the minute you enter.
The atmosphere is as cozy and as intimate as this sort of exhibit can be. The low lighting and spare setting is cohesive and sophisticated, allowing the pieces to shine (no pun intended, because a lot of them are quite shiny).
The first object on display is the much buzzed about North German Bronze Lion-Form Aquamanile from the late 12th Century. It is one of only four with a Hebrew inscription from the medieval era and is also significant because of how very little material culture exists before the Baroque era. Jews were not accepted into guilds at the time; so, like other objects on display, the object exemplifies collaboration between Jews and Christian artists.
The Franfurt Mishneh Torah – the standardized code of Jewish Law by the brilliant legal, philosophical, and medical mind of the Rambam – from the mid 15th century is exquisite. There is no tradition from which the illustrations are drawn and they are all text-related which highlights the great collaboration between the scribe Nechemiah and the Christian artist (name unknown). It is one of two volumes, the first part, books I-V (the sixth presumably lost), is in the Vatican and books VII-XIV are in the present volume.
For the record, when I asked why it was open to Shoftim, expecting a philosophical or visual explanation (i.e. it was the most beautifully illustrated page), Sharon Liberman Mintz, senior consultant for Judaica at Sotheby’s told me it was “comfortable.” It is in the interest of preservation that it was opened to whichever page opened most easily and this was it. Lucky for us, it’s gorgeous.
The collectors do not disappoint either. Michael Steinhardt is surprisingly candid. A self-proclaimed atheist, he is a leading philanthropist in the Jewish world, perhaps most recognized as the co-founder of Taglit-Birthright Israel. Though he doesn’t believe in G-d, he believes in Jewish culture and history. He believes in it so much that the auction has an extraordinary range of prices, from tzedakah boxes that are expected to go from $100 to the Mishneh Torah that is estimated to fetch $4.5/6 million. He has said the scope of the auction is to encourage the spread of the objects to a new generation.
Jennifer Roth, head of Sotheby’s Judaica and Israeli Art Department, put it this way: “Instead of giving to a museum, he wants them to go out in the world.” He is “not trying to educate anyone,” but wants to “touch their Jewish hearts.” He believes that this makes it more personal and therefore creates a stronger connection to Jewish history and culture. I agree.
If the collection were in a museum, you might see the objects a handful of time and might even forge a small connection, as I felt with some of the pieces in the exhibition. To have one of these pieces in your home is so much more personal. It connects the owner to every previous owner and every owner to come.
A sense of continuity is really the underlying theme in this collection. From the introductory hall illuminating the Jewish life cycle and Jewish Holy Days to the objects being auctioned, like the torah bindings, tefillin boxes, and menorahs. These are all things that as a Jew, you are familiar with whether it is because you observe it or consider it part of a culture.
The continuity of Judaism is so clearly evident and that thread is what makes the collection great. That ability to make what is old feel current, familiar, and personal. The collection is a slice of Jewish history and culture through art and that is what I love about art the most. No piece of art or antiquity stands on its own. It comes from a time and place and a history. This collection acknowledges that history without being limited to it.
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