The Chosen Objects: A Soaring Market for Judaica As Museums Go on a Buying Spree

Ashkenazi Prayer Book, Vienna 1716, sold for $875,000. (photographs Courtesy of Sotheby’s)

Ashkenazi Prayer Book, Vienna 1716, sold for $875,000. (photographs Courtesy of Sotheby’s)

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 Sotheby’s in New York with a price estimate of $550,000 to $750,000. It soared to $875,000.

Sotheby’s holds a sale of Judaica every December in New York, specifically timed for Hanukkah. This year’s 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 2013’s sale, and well above the sale’s high estimate. About three out of every four works offered sold.

Who’s bidding? While private collectors in the U.S., Israel and Europe tend to be the largest group, Sotheby’s 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 “didn’t have much or any of this material before, and know that it’s time to acquire.”

Consider that just five years ago, one of the nation’s 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.

A rare German silver Torah shield, circa 1710, flanked by figures of King David and Moses, sold for $65,000 at Sotheby’s December 4. (photographs Courtesy of Sotheby’s)

A rare German silver Torah shield, circa 1710, flanked by figures of King David and Moses, sold for $65,000 at Sotheby’s December 4. (photographs Courtesy of Sotheby’s)

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 Steinhardt’s 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 York’s 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 18th century survives, as pogroms destroyed objects as well as people in Europe. “Most of what you see for sale is 19th century or later,” said Michael Ehrenthal, part-owner of Moriah Galleries in Manhattan, 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 Sotheby’s 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).

Strangely, almost all of the antique ritual pieces—the Torah finials, mantles, shields and crowns, the Seder plates and spice boxes—were not made by Jews.

“All the crafts, like silversmithing, were controlled by European guilds, and Jews weren’t allowed into the guilds,” said Bernard Bernstein, a silversmith who teaches a course on Judaica metalsmithing at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. Jews commissioned gentile silversmiths to create ritual objects, writing out the Hebrew characters that the silversmiths were told to engrave or set into the pieces.

Jonathan Greenstein, president of J. Greenstein & Co. in Cedarhurst, N.Y., which exclusively auctions Judaica, noted, “We constantly find Hebrew characters that are a little wrong, but the silversmiths usually did a good job.” Those silversmiths included their own stamped signatures or marks on the ritual objects they made, which is a principal way to check the pieces’ authenticity. “There are a lot of fakes and forgeries out there,” he warned.

By the 19th century, European Jews were becoming more assimilated into general European culture, some attending art academies and producing paintings and sculptures of their own in the styles popular at the time. One of the stand-out pieces in the Sotheby’s sale was an undated late 19th century oil on panel Portrait of a Rabbi by Isidor Kaufmann, an Austro-Hungarian (1853-1921), estimated at $200,000-$300,000. “It is a realistic portrait of a particular person,” Ms. Roth said, “but it is also a generalized portrait, representing the dignity and wisdom of the Jewish sage.” Part of its appeal, she added, is that it depicts a disappearing world. It brought $281,000.

Today, among the most sought-after types of Judaica include 20th century modern pieces by Polish-born Ilya Schor as well as Ludwig Wolpert and David Gumbel. All were academically trained in Germany before the Second World War and produced Jewish ritual objects in a more modernist style. “Their work is extremely collectible,” Mr. Greenstein said. “Modernism is just cool, and people love to decorate their homes with it.”

The Sotheby’s sale was light in more modern and Contemporary Judaica, but did include a set of seven 1997-99 silver Kiddush cups by Israeli silversmith Menahem Berman (they sold for $43,750, against an estimate of $40,000-$60,000), as well as a circa-1996 bronze Statue of Liberty Menorah by Manfred Anson, a German-born American.

The menorah was similar to one by the artist that has been on public view at the Smithsonian. It features nine tiny Statues of Liberty, each holding a Hanukkah   candle aloft in her torch. Estimated at $5,000 to $7,000, it sold for $8,125.

The Chosen Objects: A Soaring Market for Judaica As Museums Go on a Buying Spree