At the end of last year, Sotheby’s in New York City held a sale of about half of the Judaica collection acquired by the late Abraham Halpern (1936-2017). Mr. Halpern collected for almost 50 years, and was a gracious lender of his items to numerous museum exhibitions. Most unusual for a Judaica collector, he sought out Jewish items from every part of the globe, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, in all mediums, and had an apparent fascination with rare textiles. While most of the items offered sold within the estimates set by Sotheby’s, quite a few far surpassed them. Here are the highlights.
First, this piece, a Torah ark curtain from Italy dated 1717, was estimated at $30,000-$50,000, and sold for $170,100. I have been attending Judaica auctions for nearly 25 years and have visited numerous Jewish museums around the world, and this was the most beautiful and memorable Torah curtain I had ever seen. I was able to view it along with the rest of the items at the exhibition for the auction held in the days leading up to it. The curtain is entirely covered in expertly embroidered Hebrew script, with all the of the Ten Commandments written out in full-verse form, as seen in chapter 20 of Sefer Shemot.
Another Torah ark curtain, described as “highly important, Ottoman Empire or Italy, 19th century,” also was estimated at $30,000-$50,000, and sold for $163,800. Unlike the previously mentioned Torah curtain, this example had almost no Hebrew embroidery, save for the words Magen David inside of a Star of David, with the other motif being a hanging lamp inside a portal. I barely recall seeing this at the exhibition – I spent only a few seconds looking at, as it bored me, and I quickly moved on to look at other items. You can imagine my astonishment at the price it realized. Although I later read the catalog entry, which stated “The extremely talented artisan who created this masterpiece employed many different types of stitches and embroidery techniques, including couching, plaited braid stitch, lattice stitch, stem stitch, and stumpwork,” I was still left baffled at why this seemingly “boring” Torah ark curtain did so well.
Fortunately for me, the appraiser in charge of Jewish books, manuscripts, and textiles at Sotheby’s, Sharon Mintz, graciously agreed to meet me regarding another matter and I expressed to her my puzzlement regarding this Torah curtain. Mrs. Mintz explained to me that at the exhibition, various people who are scholars regarding antique textiles, including a museum curator whose specialty is textiles hailing specifically from Italy, all proclaimed their amazement at the level of skill involved in the creation of this Torah curtain and were very excited by it. It achieved the price it did because of the high level of interest it received when viewed in person. This experience taught me a lesson – not to be so hasty in passing judgments on Judaica, even though I’ve been immersed in this field for decades. I, too, still have much to learn!
This sale revealed a pattern of textiles (no pun intended) that achieved results in multiples of the estimates assigned to them, such as two Torah binders from 18th-century Italy. One was estimated to sell for $2,000-$3,000 and sold for $8,820, while another – estimated at $2,000-$4,000 – sold for $8,190. In another example, a Torah mantle from 19th-century Turkey, estimated at $8,000-$12,000, sold for $35,280, while an 18th-century Torah mantle from Italy was estimated at $10,000-$15,000 and sold for $37,800. Even a pair of early 20th-century Shabbat tablecloths from Iran did remarkably well, selling for $9,450 against an estimate of $1,500-$2,500.
Moving on to objects, the star of the sale was a striking silver Torah crown from Algeria which featured an inscription stating that it was created in 1868 in the city of Mascara. Given an estimate of $30,000-50,000, it sold for $151,200. This type of Torah crown, which is multi-faceted and comprised of hinged panels, was made to sit atop a Sephardic Torah case known as a tik. While similar examples of this type of Torah crown are known in both public and private collections and they do appear in the marketplace one or two times every decade, the price realized for this item must be an auction record. It is among the finest examples of this type of Torah crown – whose distinct shape originated in Algeria – that I have ever seen. No doubt this excerpt from the catalog description describing the city in which the crown was made aided in generating the interest of prospective bidders: “Mascara is an inland Algerian city, about 60 miles southeast of the coastal city of Oran. The Jewish community was established in the 15th century and flourishing by the 18th century. In 1835, many of the Jews were massacred and their possessions looted by the troops of Emir Abd el-Kader during his war with France. The survivors, protected by the French army, fled to Mostaganem then Oran, and were sent aid by James de Rothschild in Paris. Families slowly returned to Mascara, and this crown bears witness to the renewed prosperity of the community a generation after these upheavals.”
Finally, shown here is an item which sold for 20 times more than its estimated price. “A Chinese Silver Filigree Lantern-Form Spice Container, Early 20th Century,” estimated at $2,000-$3,000, sold for $40,320. How did this achieve such an outstanding result when it was assigned such a modest estimate? In my opinion, it has little do with the actual quality or craftsmanship of the piece, which is fine, but not exceptional by any means. Two factors come into play. The first is that this spice container is Chinese in origin, which makes it quite desirable to collectors, as few pieces of Judaica hailing from China appear in the marketplace. The Baghdadi Jewish community in India began extending their businesses to Burma and China towards the end of the 19th century, and they are known to have ordered Torah implements from Chinese artisans, who applied their own style of decoration to these Judaic forms. When these types of Sino-Judaic wares do come up, they tend to be Esther scroll cases or the aforementioned tik Torah cases.
The second reason for the strong price that was achieved is that this is a spice container. There are sophisticated collectors who are focused on acquiring every known type of spice container that was produced in the last 250 years. I have never seen a spice container that was made in China. Hence, this object has what is known throughout the collecting industry as “crossover appeal,” and the result was a fierce bidding war!
It is yet to be seen if the descendants of Abraham Halpern will sell the remainder of the Judaica collection that he pursued acquiring with such passion. Perhaps December 15, 2023 at Sotheby’s?