Several Judaica auctions took place in New York and Israel during the month of March – we are fortunate that in the last 20 or so years two auction houses were established that specialize in Jewish Ceremonial Art and books.
The Kestenbaum Company is the oldest. Daniel Kestenbaum, originally from London, came to Swann Galleries in 1986 as its Judaica expert, a position he held until 1992. In 1995 he opened his own auction house where he specialized mostly in books, manuscripts and illustrated material, however, in the last few years he began acquiring significantly more Jewish ritual art.
In 2012 Kestenbaum obtained 19 magnificent objects to be auctioned, consigned by the Jewish Historical Society of England.
Every piece in this sale was important but the showstoppers were: an 18th century filigree spice tower with six figures of Jews holding various ritual objects, it sold for over $400,000 to a dealer/collector, and an 18th century festival goblet from Augsburg Germany, with four engraved figures of Jews also holding various ritual objects pertaining to the four main holidays. We had the winning bid at $65,000.
Kestenbaum & Company’s March auction featured several very important items, among them a celebrated portrait of Rav Yom Tov Lippman, the Tosfos Yom Tov, which realized ten times its estimate and sold for $120,000.
A contemporary miniature Torah Scroll (2 inches tall) sold for $140,000 (we own the oldest miniature Torah Scroll; it’s in a magnificent silver Ark which will be on exhibit in our galleries in 2014).
Another winning lot: the first Jewish Prayer book in German, published in America, with a presale estimate of $8-10,000 – it sold for $50,000!
A manuscript of Chief Rabbi Shmuel Salant fetched $28,000 amid many other books and manuscripts.
Among the ritual objects, a magnificent Russian Chanukah lamp from Zitomir estimated at $100-120,000 did not find a buyer, but subsequently came to us. Some Bezalel objects, always very desirable, sold briskly; two rare Russian “Gardener” porcelain figures of a Jew and Jewess made in Moscow (circa 1880) sold for $8,000.
The Jonathan Greenstein Judaica Auction house is owned by Jonathan Greenstein, a recognized expert in the Judaica field. His March auction featured many important items in the painting and ritual art sections.
A beautiful silver filigree “Baal Shem” Chanukah lamp sold for $16,000 ( I will elaborate a bit more on these lamps in an upcoming article); a rare Folk Art Torah Ark from a “rebbishe” provenance sold for $22,000; and a large 18th century filigree spice tower sold for $15,000 – very reasonable for this type of piece. A very rare and important pair of Rimonim (Torah Finials) from Charleston, South Carolina realized $31,000 – a very low price for a 19th century piece of American Judaica. An extremely rare Augsburg 18th century Sukkot goblet brought $26,000; a unique silver Vienna 1869 spice box realized $13,000 and a Havdallah Compendium by the famous silversmith B. Friedlander sold for $24,000 (double the presale estimate).
The highlight of the auction was a superb and extremely rare ram-shaped silver spice container (very similar to the one in the Kiev Jewish Museum, and probably by the same maker) which brought $36,000.
It’s now appropriate to mention the “Granddaddy” of Judaica auctions in New York – Sotheby’s. It inherited a Judaica department from the venerable Park Bernet Galleries sometimes in the 1970s. Sotheby’s runs only one single auction a year, usually in December – except for private collection sales such as the Michael Steinhardt collection in April 2012.
The last Sotheby’s auction in December 2013 had many important and rare items, but I will only mention a few: a pair of miniature gold Torah Finials, early 20th century, and a magnificent pair of Bezalel Rimonim which sold for $62,500. There was an important Montefiore item: a beautiful silver gilt Candelabrum dedicated to D.W.Wire Esq for having accompanied Sir Moses on his mission to the East – it fetched $46,700. A rare English Silver Sabbath Lamp (circa 1812) sold for $57,500. The highlight was a splendid Nuremberg silver spice tower from 1730. The estimate was $70-100,000 and sold for $227,000 – more than double the estimate.
It was a high price but I congratulate the happy owner, because it is a rare and important piece of Judaica and has a splendid provenance: it is from the collection of Jacob Michael, one of the best collectors in the field.
Among the paintings for auction was a Moritz Oppenheim historical subject which sold for $407,000. It is a rare occurrence to have an Oppenheim painting offered anywhere and especially one that depicts the kidnapping of the boy Edgardo Mortara by the Papal authorities in 1858, an event which created a worldwide outcry and protest in the Jewish and non-Jewish circles at the time.
An Isidor Kaufman painting of a young rabbi sold for $203,000. Isidor Kaufman was one of the most prominent of the Jewish genre painters at the beginning of the 1900s. In 2007 we sold a portrait of the artist’s daughter (also through Sotheby’s) for $180,000, which in a subsequent sale brought $230,000.
A Wimple (Torah Binder) of exquisite beauty from Italy (circa 1700) sold for $75,000. A very interesting fragment of a wood carving from a Syrian Synagogue (circa 11th century), a real museum piece, fetched $50,000, but should have brought much more … how many Jewish artifacts have survived the vicissitudes of time?
A beautiful Slichot manuscript on parchment from around 1300 realized $100,000. A “Pinkas” of the leatherworkers from Jassi (Romania) 1832 sold for $45,000 (below the estimate). A classic Ancona Italy Ketubah from 1779, beautifully ornamented, sold within the estimate – $28,000.
A Mashal Ha-Kadmoni by Isaac ibn Shahula, Venice 1547, with profusely illustrated fables (one of my preferred illustrated books), also sold around its presale estimate: $46,000.
The showstopper in the book and manuscript section was a magnificent engraved Megillat Esther, richly illustrated with scenes from the Purim story (Prague circa 1700). Its presale estimate was $90-100,000 and surprisingly did not sell!
All the above items and prices represent only some of the most important entries in these sales. The bulk of most auctions is comprised of medium and lower end priced items of beautiful and rare Judaica you can acquire.
The next Judaica auctions take place in June 2014 and it’s always exciting to participate. If an item sells way above its estimate the audience erupts in applause. If you are a successful buyer on a costly item no doubt you will be approached by dealers offering you “similar” but cheaper wares. If opportunity allows, do partake of the experience.
About the Author: Romanian-born Peter Ehrenthal came to the States in 1957. He and his son have owned one of the finest Judaica galleries in the world since 1973.
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