Photo Credit: Courtesy
Mizrach Sign

On December 14, 2023, Sotheby’s in New York City held a sale comprising the third and final part of the Abraham Halpern (1936-2017) collection of Judaica. While the first two sales, held consecutively in December 2022, had some spectacular results – including a few records broken for specific types of Judaica, such as an Algerian Torah crown that sold for $151,200 and an Italian Torah ark curtain that realized $170,100 – the sale results of this recent offering were a more modest affair. Here are the highlights.

Given a wide berth of an estimate at $40,000-$80,000, a magnificently crafted silver candelabra for Shabbat realized $50,800. Made circa 1920 by the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem, this tall piece – 22.5” high – set on a wood base featured intricate chased motifs of scrolling grapevines amongst a pierced background, making for a particularly pleasing effect on the eye. At each of the six sides of this candelabra, a Hebrew word had been applied which, when read as a continuous phrase, stated “six days of work.” alluding to its intended purpose, namely, that when the candelabra is lit at the end of the sixth day of the week, on the eve of the Sabbath, there will not be work, but rest. Large silver items made by the Bezalel School are rare, and the experts at Sotheby’s were of the opinion that this piece was likely a special commission for a client.


The next item that did well was a mizrach sign, which is designed to be hung on the eastern wall of a home or synagogue to orient the direction of one’s prayer toward the city of Jerusalem. The mizrach offered was a papercut illustrated in ink and gouache, and hailed from the Ukraine, circa 1860. Assigned an estimate of $8,000-$12,000, it achieved $20,320. As is typical with papercuts from Eastern Europe that proclaimed they were to be used as a mizrach, this example had different types of animals depicted; here they included four pairs of leopards, eagles, deer, and lions, all of which reference the text of Pirkei Avot (5:2), which urges the individual to “be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven.”

A 19th-century mizrach made in this papercut technique is always popular with the Judaica collecting audience, where price is generally dictated by the complexity of the papercut and the level of sophistication of the decoration by the artist. This mizrach, while certainly pleasant, was not a superior example by any means, and I thought the estimate assigned to it was appropriate. That it realized more than twice the low end of the estimate is an indication of how ephemeral Judaica continues to be on an upward trajectory, a trend that has not ceased or even slowed for the past decade or more.

I can still recall a breathtakingly beautiful papercut mizrach that was offered at Sotheby’s in their 2014 sale. When I viewed it in person, I was amazed at how much it resembled a piece of delicate lacework, and it was hard to believe my own eyes that what I was looking at was actually one large piece of paper that was masterfully cut and designed. The artist of that mizrach signed his name along with a statement that he had started making the mizrach in 1859 while living in Helmiaziv, Russia (today located in Ukraine), and he finished it upon settling in Albany, New York in 1866. Given an estimate of $30,000-$50,000, it sold for $149,000, a record-breaking result for any mizrach to appear at auction, and one which still stands.

Speaking of collecting trends in Judaica, another category that for some years now, more often than not, achieves strong results is textiles – specifically, curtains made for the Torah ark. While not performing anywhere near the result of the Torah ark curtain in the aforementioned 2022 sale, during this recent auction, a culturally significant Torah ark curtain from 1850 sold for $20,320 against a $10,000-$15,000 estimate. Featuring a black background profusely decorated with multicolored shaped appliques, metallic thread, and spangles, this brilliantly colored curtain is a rare survival from the once-flourishing Jewish community of Banja Luka, a city in the Balkan region that was under Ottoman rule from the early sixteenth through most of the nineteenth century. In 1878, the Austrians took control of the city, and today Banja Luka is part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sephardic Jews first settled in the region of Banja Luka when they fled from the expulsions of Spain and Portugal. The first Ashkenazic Jews arrived from Hungary in 1686. This exceptional Torah ark curtain was created using a lavish applique technique and floral design that is specific to the region of Banja Luka. Sadly, the Jewish community of Banja Luka was almost completely destroyed in World War II.

While that concludes my reportage of the Judaica sale, I would be remiss not to mention an astounding work of art that was offered at Sotheby’s on February 1. In the sale of “Master Paintings & Sculpture, Part One,” there is, without question, the most beautiful painting of the Western Wall I have ever seen. Measuring 50” x 38,” this painting left me in awe when I viewed it in person at the preview – for its sheer size, fascinating “from life” depiction of Jewish worshipers, and incredible detail.

The artist of this work, Gustav Bauernfeind, made three extended trips to the Holy Land: in 1880-81, 1884-87, and finally in 1888-89, before settling permanently in Jerusalem with his family in 1896. Armed with his sketchbook and Detektiv camera – a miniature spy camera that he hid in his waistcoat with the lens peeping through a buttonhole – he could be seen exploring the city and recording his impressions. He would then work these up into finished paintings, typically in his studio during intervals in Germany. These works were destined for his dealer, Arthur Sulley, or for private patrons.

Under Ottoman rule (1517-1917), men and women were allowed to mingle at the Western Wall on Fridays and holy days. In this painting, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews gather together, with men at the front (including children) – some draped in talleisim, others wearing a shtreimel (the headgear worn predominately by chasidic, Ashkenazi males), fez or tarbush (worn predominantly by Sephardic Jews), or a yarmulke, and women at the back. Several figures read from open prayer books in silent or whispered prayer. Others have inscribed their names, together with loved ones, all in Hebrew, onto the stones themselves – a precursor to the modern tradition of leaving prayer notes in the wall.

The estimate for this painting was $2,000,000-$3,000,000; it sold for $3,448,000. I hope a museum acquired it, as I very much wish to see it again for it is simply exquisite. While a tiny reproduction of the painting is presented here, I urge interested readers to go online and see the many close-ups posted of the painting on Sotheby’s website.


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Tsadik Kaplan is a collector, certified appraiser, and speaker/lecturer on the topic of Judaica. He is the author of the book “Jewish Antiques: From Menorahs to Seltzer Bottles” (Schiffer Publishing). For questions or comments – or to send pictures of your Judaica for future columns – email [email protected].