Photo Credit: Tsadik Kaplan

While many businesses have slowed down or shuttered their doors altogether due to the pandemic, auction houses both here and abroad that deal exclusively with antique Jewish books and ritual objects have not taken the briefest respite. Here are some recent highlights:

            On July 7th in Jerusalem, the Israeli auction house Kedem offered a historically important archive of documents relating to Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin (1796-1850), a famed Chassidic Rebbe known as Der Heiliger Ruzhiner (“The holy one from Ruzhin”). Rav Friedman conducted his court with regal pomp and splendor. Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, who was said to be jealous of the Rebbe’s wealth and influence, had the Rebbe imprisoned for nearly two years on an unsubstantiated murder charge. After his release, the Rebbe fled to Austria, where he re-established his court in the city of Sadhora, better known by its Yiddish name, Sadigura.

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This archive included documents detailing the Rebbe’s arrival in Sadigura, which included three of his signatures, records of his interrogation, previously unknown information about his life and family, his exact escape route from Russia to Sadigura, and a travel document used by the Rebbe to illegally cross the Russian border in 1842. Given an opening bid of $100,000 by the auction house, this cache of documents sold for an astounding $336,000.

            Another item that did remarkably well against its opening bid was a wooden sculpture, entirely hand-carved. Standing two feet tall, it featured highly detailed depictions of Theodor Herzl holding hands with Moshe Rabbeinu. About 10 years after the death of Herzl in 1904, some works written by Herzl or objects featuring him began displaying also an image of Moshe, as the comparisons between Herzl, who would never live to see the fulfillment of his dream to have an internationally recognized homeland for the Jewish people, and Moshe, whom as we know died on Har Nevo overlooking the promised Land of Israel, was a moving comparison. This sculpture, bearing no artist signature or date of manufacture, and no provenance to speak of, had an opening bid of $500. It sold for $8,750.

On July 21st, Kestenbaum & Company, located in Brooklyn, offered a magnificent silver spice tower, with an estimate of $150,000-$250,000. Hailing from either Galicia or Germany, the three-tiered tower featured a hinged door with latch, with all four sides revealing an engraved clock face. The central section housed a single bell, and is surrounded by three gilt-cast male figures bearing a braided candle and musical instruments, particularly a flute and lyre. The upper section of the tower is encircled by four pennants and a further four male figures bearing a wine cup, spices, and a prayer book. Atop the spice tower rests a domed cupola with pennant. The whole piece is set on a pedestal above which stands a male figure with arms outstretched clutching a prayer book and spice box.

The owner of this spice tower had a direct chain of provenance, as his relatives were prominent Jews in pre-war Frankfurt. The spice tower sold for $187,500, putting it into an elite category of just a handful of spice towers that have sold for over $100,000 at auction. In addition to this special piece, Kestenbaum offered a haunting portrait of a Chassidic rabbi, done by the masterful Jewish artist Isidor Kaufman, which sold for $125,000 against an estimate of $100,000-$150,000.

On September 13th, J. Greenstein & Co., located in Brooklyn, offered a wide array of Jewish ceremonial objects, both antique and modern. An iconic piece at this auction (which I am sure many of our readers would recognize) was the Statue of Liberty chanukiah, created by the late Manfred Anson in 1986, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the placing of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

            Anson, a refugee who escaped Germany and a gem dealer by trade, had the truly brilliant idea of taking a standard American brass chanukiah dating from the 1940s and replacing each of the nine candle holders with full-figure representations of the Statue of Liberty. He purchased a small metal souvenir model of the Statue of Liberty, made a mold of it, cast nine copies, and replaced the torch in the outstretched hand of Lady Liberty with a candle holder. He then inscribed the base of eight of the nine Liberty copies with a different event in Jewish history, those being “Exodus From Egypt,” “Babylonian Exile 597-538 BCE,” “Judah Maccabee 168 BCE,” “2 Revolts Against Rome,” “Galut,” “Herzl Zionist Congress, Basel 1897,” “Holocaust 1939-1945,” “Israel – 1948.” The ninth Liberty candle holder, the shamash, bears the dates of the Centennial, “1886-1986.” For a finishing touch, he placed an American eagle as a finial.

Given an estimate of $8,000-$10,000, this piece sold for $19,500, a new auction record for this model of chanukiah. The next highest price for an example of the Statue of Liberty chanukiah was earned just a year ago at Sotheby’s, where it sold for $11,875. The original Statue of Liberty chanukiah made by Anson, from which the aforementioned auction examples were cast in a limited number, is on permanent display at the Statue of Liberty Museum, located on Liberty Island.

            Yet another object in this sale achieved a new record price at auction: a bronze charity box issued by the Jewish National Fund in Berlin. This massive, solid bronze box (roughly the size of a brick) was designed and created by the Jewish-German sculptor Leopold Fleischacker (1882-1946), and was made around 1910. It was issued in a limited number of copies and presented to the most senior JNF members. Today there are only a few known examples, and it is considered rare. It features bold elements of Art Nouveau styling, which consist of clusters of grapes, grapevines, and leaves. The front states in German “Judischer National Fonds,” along with “Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael.” Given an estimate of $10,000-$15,000, it sold for $23,750, easily beating the previous high price received at auction for another example of this box, which was at Kedem in 2013, in the sum of $13,530.

Do you have a Jewish ceremonial object that you want to know more about, including the current market value? E-mail me photos and a brief description along with your name and city and state, and it may appear in my next column! Reach me at tsadik613@gmail.com.

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