The story my father told me was that this menorah was smuggled out of Austria-Hungary when his family moved to the U.S. Since he passed away, it has been in my possession. About 30 years ago, I took it to a silversmith to fix the cups, and he told me that I should give it to a museum because it is so unusual. He valued it at that time at around $3,000.
The menorah didn’t have a base when he got it, so my Dad had found a silver base to attach to it so we could use it for Chanukah. Thus, only the top of the menorah is from the old country. I want to know if you are able to estimate the value of this menorah, and more importantly, of the story that might go along with it. I do have a son that I could pass this down to, but I don’t think he will value it nearly as much as a museum would if it is indeed something rare.
Thanks so much,
Los Angeles, California
After being immersed in the field of antique Judaica for decades, just when I think I have “seen it all,” someone (you!) comes along and shows me something surprising.
The design of your “chanukiah” (the modern Hebrew term for a Chanukah menorah) – with those large, beautifully-cast crowned lions standing upright and facing outward – is most unusual. I cannot recall ever seeing anything like it, and there are no similar examples depicted in my vast reference library. Based on the hallmarks, it is clearly marked as having been made in Vienna, Austria, between 1872 and 1922.
Austrian silver during this era varied in terms of silver content, from as low as .800 to as high as .950, which is even higher than our modern standard of .925 sterling. From the hallmarks it appears your piece is made from .950, but this should be verified by a visit to your local jewelry store, where you can ask for it to be tested.
Unfortunately, the current marketplace takes a very negative outlook on pieces that are not “all original.” Having a base that is a replacement decreases your chanukiah’s value by 50%. The job of an appraiser is to evaluate an item by investigating what comparable items have sold for in the past, known in the industry as “comps” (much like a real estate agent will tell you how much your home is worth based on what similar homes in the area have sold for). Because I cannot find any “comps,” I have to use my experience and judgment to value your piece.
I will give you two figures:
1) At a specialized, well-advertised auction, if I were to place this in a sale, I would give the estimate a range of $2,500-$3,500. This may seem low based on what the silversmith told you 30 years ago, but auction estimates for items under $10,000 tend to be on the conservative side, especially with “problem pieces,” and since the base on your piece is not original to the rest of the chanukiah, that is what I would feel comfortable with. As I have mentioned previously, your piece would have double that value at auction if the base were original.
2) If I were to walk into a retail store, I doubt I could purchase your chanukiah for anything less than $5,000. The highly detailed lions, being so prominent in the overall design of your piece, make it quite striking, even to a layperson who has no experience with Judaica or the decorative arts in general. If said store owner would explain to a customer the rarity of your chanukiah (as well as the fact that the base is a replacement), I do not think it would take long for your piece to be sold for at least $5,000.
Since your chanukiah was made in Vienna, I urge you to contact the Jewish Museum of Vienna, as they have a large inventory of Austrian and, specifically, Viennese Judaica. If they do not own another example of your chanukiah, that would make your piece even more interesting, and may even increase the value some.
As for your query regarding donation to a museum, that is a long, complicated, even controversial discussion that is outside the forum of this column. However, just so our readers can know, American museums (Jewish or otherwise) most often do not accept donations of Judaica unless they deem the item to be “important” in some way. Even if a donation is accepted, a piece may sit in storage for years, even decades, before being given the opportunity to go on display (if at all).
If you do decide to donate your chanukiah to a museum, I think the American institution that you would have the best chance of it being enthusiastically welcomed in is the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. This is because your chanukiah is an example of the types of beautiful pieces of Jewish ritual art which were made for the upper-class Jewish community in Vienna during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was wiped out beginning with the Anschluss in 1938.
* * * * *
I’d like to share with you a pair of candlesticks I inherited from my great-great-grandmother. My family immigrated from Lithuania around the time of World War I and brought these with them. What I know about the candlesticks is that they originated in Warsaw, Poland and would travel via caravans to neighboring counties for sale (which is why in addition to the Warsaw stamp there is a Russian emblem as well). They are silver-plated (from what I learned as well, that was how they were made back then) and stand at about 14 inches tall. I have seen many similar to these (including in some Jewish museums), but I have never found another pair exactly like it.
There hasn’t been much work done to them except for the occasional silver dip over the years. I enjoy using them every Shabbos as they are a part of my family history and so few Judaic items have survived from the past. I would love to hear more about these candlesticks and if the information I’ve tried to research on my own is accurate. If you need more pictures of them please let me know.
East Brunswick, New Jersey
Well, you already know most of the facts – these indeed hail from Warsaw, as the hallmark clearly states “Warszawa,” and they were manufactured around 1905-10, which places them right at the time your family immigrated to America. As pretty as your candlesticks are, however, the value is quite modest, due to a few factors.
The first is that the period between 1880 and 1924, when two and a half million Jews left Eastern Europe to come here, the few items they shlepped were those that were most important to them. What was on the top of the list for many of these immigrants? Their Shabbos candlesticks, of course! Consequently, candlesticks like yours have survived in tremendous numbers and are easy enough to find for purchase today.
The second reason for the value I am going to give is that because your candlesticks are made of silver-plated brass, and not silver, the buying public at large is not very interested in purchasing brass candlesticks unless the price is quite low. So, even with the perfect condition and slightly unusual design of your candlesticks, in today’s market they have a value of $150-$200.