I just came across your ad in The Jewish Press and would like your opinion on a piece of mine – perhaps you can share some insights. Thank you in advance.
New York, N.Y.
Since The Jewish Press allocated this monthly column to me five years ago, I have had a handful of questions from JP readers regarding their Jewish collectibles where I had to break the news to them that what they have is a fake, meaning a piece of Judaica that, while appearing to have significant age, is actually a modern item made with the express purpose of fooling someone for monetary gain. I never expanded on this topic as it is negative, but with the submission of your piece, I feel that now the time has come to broach this “elephant in the room” in relation to antique Judaica.
After antiquities (items from the ancient world – Egypt, Rome, Greece, etc.), and the famous Russian jewelry firm Fabergé, I believe Judaica is the next most forged and copied type of antique. The ugliness of hoodwinking someone into buying an “old” item has been going on for many, many years. Research the “Tiara of Saitaphernes” for an infamous episode from 1896 that caused a worldwide sensation, where a solid gold item purportedly from ancient Greece was sold to The Louvre for a very large sum, and was put on display to much fanfare, only to have the truth come out a few years later that it was actually a new creation.
There are three types of “non-antiques.” The most nefarious are fakes or forgeries, since these items are meant to deceive even the somewhat knowledgeable buyer. Various ways of “aging” an item may be introduced. Creating a patina (for silver, swabbing the piece with a liquid element and burying it in the earth for two months is a classic technique), filing down parts of a new casting meant to show wear, and stamping “hallmarks” on a piece are just a few of the methods used.
The next type is a reproduction. Generally, reproductions are made in such a way which clearly show they are new items. Some museum gift shops who produce reproductions of items from their collections (such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art) will incorporate their logo and/or the full name of their institution somewhere on the piece itself.
Finally, there is the “fantasy piece.” Typically, a fantasy piece is a hodgepodge of two or more styles of what is found on old items which have been combined into a new item that never existed – except in the mind of the person making it – and which is often presented as a “unique, one-of-a-kind discovery.”
In my 30 years of being heavily involved in the field of antique Judaica, I have come across many different types of fake Judaica. Here are the most commonly seen:
1) Torah pointers, Chanukah menorahs, spice boxes, and more (always made of silver) from Spain and Portugal. These items were apparently made for the tourist industry, possibly as early as 1960. I have met many people who told me that they were on vacation in Spain or Portugal during the late 1960s through the early 1980s and stopped at an antique shop, where the owner of the store would say, “Do you happen to be Jewish? I have some items that were found in a cave near here that were thought to have been hidden by Marranos. These are hundreds of years old.” The items generally are of a low craftsmanship quality with average or even finely engraved Hebrew. One specific type of piece is known as a “Marrano cup,” a tall silver goblet with hidden compartments that hold a miniature Chanukah menorah and/or a small Esther scroll.
2) Torah pointers, Torah shields, “traveling” Chanukah menorahs, spice towers, and more (again, always made of silver) from Poland. These items were introduced as early as the 1970s, as I have met countless people who visited Poland and stopped by a flea market or antique shop, where they were told by the seller that the Torah pointer or menorah they were holding was recently found in an attic or dug up while doing yard work. Many of these silver items have an artificial dark black or purplish-blue patina, which was achieved by the method previously described. Frequently, these items have bold stamped “hallmarks,” and may have inlaid glass stones in red, blue, or green. Most of the time any Hebrew engraving is so poorly done as to be unintelligible, but in the last decade, I have seen examples with fine Hebrew engraving.
3) Chanukah menorahs made of brass, parts of Chanukah menorahs made of lead, or other types of Jewish objects made of lead. These items and ones like them have been flooding websites in the last 15 years, usually from Ukraine but occasionally from Lithuania or Poland. A colleague confided in me a few years ago that he had traveled to Ukraine and paid (bribed) someone to show him where and how these fakes were being made. He was taken to a large basement where men were making castings of Jewish objects and then “aging them” by briefly placing them into a concrete mixer where they would turn out with clumps of dust, dirt, and bits of concrete stuck to them as if they had been “found in the ground.”
What can be even more confusing about fakes from Poland and Ukraine is that there actually are Jewish objects (usually buttons, badges, dreidels, amulets or tokens) that are found by metal detector enthusiasts in these countries and sold by the same sellers as the fake Judaica.
4) Any and all types of Jewish objects, usually made of silver, but occasionally made of other metals such as brass, copper, iron, and even wood. These objects can be entirely new creations or, more insidiously, the item itself can be a genuine antique of a secular nature which has been “bastardized” into a piece of Judaica by altering it somehow with skilled engraving, chasing, casting, or repoussé work of Hebrew words or phrases and even imagery, such as animals or people. These are among the most convincing types of fake Judaica, with much of it made in New York beginning in the 1950s and becoming more and more sophisticated as the decades rolled on, with somewhat of a slowdown occurring by 2010. Among those fooled by these creations are wealthy collectors and museums, both large and small.
Typically, when a museum discovers that they have a fake of any sort in their collection, it is handled quietly, with the object being removed from display, never to be seen again. To their credit, the Derfner Judaica Museum, located on the grounds of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale (Bronx, NY), has incorporated as part of their permanent display a section of fakes that were in their collection originally as antiques, but upon discovering they were not authentic, those in charge decided to continue to show them with labels stating they are forgeries.
The item pictured here from NDL is a “traveling Chanukah menorah,” a favorite of fakers which is made in all forms, some exactly like yours, others made out of silver cigarette cases. The engraving on the lid is a poor copy/reimagining (“fantasy piece”) of the type of decoration found on Judaica from Galicia. This fake was most likely made in Poland sometime after 1980.