In the early 18th century, Jews in Europe began to commission handwritten and gorgeously decorated Hebrew books. One of the leading craftsmen of these was Aryeh Judah Leib Sofer ben Elhanan Katz of Treibitsch, known for his readable text, beautiful illustrations and page trim of gold. In 1716, he created his second full work, Ashkenazi Prayer Book for the Entire Year; Book of Psalms. Earlier this month, the nearly 300-year-old manuscript went on the block at Sothebys in New York with a price estimate of $550,000 to $750,000. It soared to $875,000.
Sothebys holds a sale of Judaica every December in New York, specifically timed for Hanukkah. This years sale, like most, included prayer books, Hagaddahs and manuscripts, synagogue objects such as Torahs, mantles, finials and crowns, and household items such as seder compendiums and menorahs. But this auction raised $6.33 million, a leap from the $2.79 million raised at 2013s sale, and well above the sales high estimate. About three out of every four works offered sold.
Whos bidding? While private collectors in the U.S.,IsraelandEuropetend to be the largest group, Sothebys senior vice president Jennifer Roth said that museums eager to address gaps in their collections have become a growing force in this market. I think it is part of museums efforts to become more diverse in their collections, she said. American museums didnt have much or any of this material before, and know that its time to acquire.
Consider that just five years ago, one of the nations great encyclopedic museums, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, had no Judaica in its collection. Then, in 2009, a retired elementary school educator from Kansas, Jetskalina Phillips, left the bulk of her estate to the MFA to support the acquisition, study, and display of the material. So, last year, the MFA acquired the Charles and Lynn Schusterman collection of Judaica, featuring over 100 examples of silver and metalwork, textiles, ceramics, paintings and sculpture, among other objects.
Jetskalina Phillips donation was a bolt out of the blue, and the Schusterman gift was part of a snowball effect, said Marietta Cambareri, curator of decorative arts and sculpture and, now, the Jetskalina H. Phillips curator of Judaica at the MFA.
The Boston MFA is just one of several institutions filling in the gaps of their collections, so to speak, with purchases of Judaica, which is defined broadly as ritual objects and other artifacts related to the history and culture of the Jewish people.
An institutional buying spree kicked off in 2013 with the sale of the Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica collection at auction. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem jointly acquired the Steinhardts Mishneh Torah as a private sale; The Met also purchased at auction a circa 1740 Venetian silver Torah crown for $857,000 (double its pre-sale estimate) and a pair of circa 1896 Russian silver Torah finials for $43,750 (the pre-sale estimate was $20,000-$30,000).
That same sale saw purchases by New Yorks Jewish Museum, the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the North Carolina Museum of Art. Other active institutional buyers in the Judaica market, Ms. Roth said, have been the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Sadly, very little Judaica from before the 18thcentury survives, as pogroms destroyed objects as well as people inEurope. Most of what you see for sale is 19thcentury or later, said Michael Ehrenthal, part-owner of Moriah Galleries inManhattan, which is one of the few shops in the country specializing in Judaica. Older than that, pieces are quite rare and more expensive.
The oldest lot in the most recent Sothebys sale was a 1533 proclamation in Italian listing the Privileges of the Jews of Duchy of Milan, identifying their rights to engage in commerce, lend money, live in their own communities and other practices (it sold for $8,125, against a pre-sale estimate of $6,000-8,000).
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The Chosen Objects: A Soaring Market for Judaica As Museums Go on a Buying Spree