Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Although the coronavirus is still with us, this has not hampered the global interest in the sale of quality antiques amongst all genres, including those relating to the Jewish people. Recently, two auctions were held where strong results were realized for select Jewish ceremonial art and Hebrew books and manuscripts. Here are some highlights:

On November 23 in Jerusalem, Kedem held a sale composed of more than 100 lots of Hebrew books and manuscripts and two objects: a Chanukah menorah and a spice tower. The spice tower that was offered was a majestic example crafted entirely of dense, hand-spun silver filigree wire, and was given an estimate of $50,000-$70,000. It sold for the remarkable sum of $325,000.



Spice Tower

Standing 11 inches tall, this is a very rare type of spice tower that collectors of substantial means seek to acquire. Its rarity derives from its overall size, which is quite large; the quality, which is very fine and would have taken months to fashion; and finally, the featuring of several miniature male figures, four of whom are holding objects relating to the havdalah ceremony – one holds a wine goblet, the other a spice tower, etc.

Although the auction catalog stated “circa 1800” for this object, most collectors and museum curators believe this would date a bit earlier, to the 18th century, originating somewhere in the territory of Galicia. While spice towers that are similar to this one are featured in various Jewish museums, examples of this type rarely come to auction, so while the price realized may seem shocking compared to the estimate, it is hardly surprising when you know how scarce and desirable a piece it is.

While Jewish ceremonial objects, such as the aforementioned spice tower, can achieve six figures, that is certainly not the norm. However, when it comes to Hebrew books and manuscripts, especially in the last ten years, reaching six figures for a Hebrew book has become increasingly commonplace. During this sale at Kedem, a miniature manuscript on parchment – a siddur – dating to the 15th century from Italy realized $175,000 against an $80,000-$100,000 estimate.

Another book offered, the first illustrated Hebrew book, Meshal HaKadmoni, is a collection of fables, parables, and poems striving to inculcate ethics and positive attributes. Various animal fables are employed by the author as moral allegories. This was the second edition, printed in 1497 in Italy, and features many hand-colored woodcuts. It realized $325,000 against an estimate of $150,000-$250,000.

Finally, there was a large Esther scroll from Italy with a date of 1767 that sold for $212,500 against an estimate of $20,000-$40,000. While the first few pages (“leaves”) of the scroll were beautifully hand-decorated with scenes from the Purim story, that does not explain the extraordinary amount realized for an 18th century Scroll of Esther.


Esther Scroll

So what was it? Well, there is a signature on the scroll stating “With the help of G-d, the writing of these blessings with the scroll was completed, on 10th Adar, 1767… by the modest and pleasant girl, Luna, daughter of the honorable and wealthy Yehuda Ambron, in the 14th year of her life… May we merit to see miracles and wonders speedily in our times.” Any Hebrew manuscripts that can be positively identified as written by women are incredibly rare. Of the extant manuscripts written by women, only two Scrolls of Esther are known, both originating in Italy.

This find thus becomes the third known Scroll of Esther written by a woman. In addition, research has revealed that the ketubah of Luna has survived as well (she married in 1776). That is the reason this Esther scroll sold for many times the estimate – not only was it done by a woman, but we know some details of her life.

On November 14th in New York, J. Greenstein & Co. held a sale of almost 200 lots of Jewish ceremonial objects, both old and modern, as well as paintings of Jewish subject matter or by Jewish artists. Seen here is an antique silver Chanukah menorah that sold for $21,875 against an estimate of $15,000-$20,000. It is decorated with a snake in the center, which is most unusual, and the menorah is struck with the numeral “12” as the sole hallmark, which points its origin to Poland or the Ukraine.


Snake Menorah

The snake may appear as a symbol of eternity and redemption in Jewish art, and the use of this motif on a Chanukah menorah is significant as the festival marks the rededication of the Temple, representing the re-emergence of the Jewish state. The snake motif appears on a number of Chanukah menorahs, although not usually as a central symbol. Other Chanukah menorahs that feature snakes are exclusively from Galicia or the Ukraine.


Charity Box

For the last few years, there has been steadily increasing interest in charity boxes that were made to collect for the Jewish National Fund, also known as Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael. During this auction, a rarely seen type from the Netherlands that dates to the early 20th century sold for $10,000 against a $4,000-$6,000 estimate. Painted in blue and white, it states the abbreviations in Hebrew and English of “JNF” and “KKL,” along with the Dutch Joods Nationaal Fonds. Based on the large size and construction of this container, this was not made for the home, but for an institution like a synagogue, or to collect funds while walking the streets of a Jewish neighborhood.

A very limited-edition silver Chanukah menorah (one of seven issued), made in the shape of a mountain by the contemporary Israeli artist Moshe Zabari was given an estimate of $10,000-$15,000. It sold for $31,250. Jewish ceremonial art made during the second half of the 20th century, like this piece is, falls in line with the trend of about the last 15 years, with collectors desiring Judaica that looks modern and is of a very high standard of quality.

Finally, there was a silver wedding ring made by the Polish-born artist Ilya Schor. Just in the last few years, Jewish ceremonial art made by Schor has achieved record-breaking prices for this artist, such as a spice tower made by him that sold for $75,000, as well as a mezuzah that sold for $56,520; both of those objects were offered at Sotheby’s in June of 2019. While Schor was prolific in making all types of jewelry, including rings, this is the first time I can recall seeing a wedding ring made by him.



The front of the ring depicts a groom and bride; the groom is a chasid, wears a hat that appears to be a shtreimel and a long coat with a gartel, and has payos. The bride is wearing a dress that is covered up to her neck and has a long, flowing veil that reaches her feet. The reverse shows figures holding lit candles along with the Hebrew words “Mazel Tov” and the year 1959. This ring was given an estimate of $5,000-$7,000. It sold for $31,250.


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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].