Collecting antique Judaica

On Shavuot, which falls in May or June (mid-May this year), Jews celebrate receiving the Torah, the Five Books of Moses.

torah pointer
This Dutch silver-gilt Torah pointer from the late 18th century sold for $39,000 in December 2006.
Photo courtesy Sotheby’s

Each Torah, which forms the basis for Jewish law and ethics, contains 304,805 Hebrew letters painstakingly hand-scribed on parchment scrolls. Each is a faithful copy of the original, received on Mt. Sinai.

Many observant Jews, to mark the occasion, devote themselves to nightlong Torah study. Before scrolling Torahs open, however, many customarily express their joy in following the law by adorning them with handcrafted silver or gold adornments — breastplates, crowns, ritual pointers and finials. Although these items are all religious in nature, they are also invaluable works of art. A Torah scroll embellished with all of them is, indeed, a sight to behold.

To foster Jewish scholarship, synagogues today often purchase many Torahs, either ready-made ones or commissioned copies. Some, honoring their heritage, also “adopt” one of the few Torahs that survived the Holocaust.

Along with Torahs, the Nazis also destroyed scores of their ritual adornments, melting them down for their silver content. Those that survived, since they reflect such deep historical and emotional value, are highly collectible. “Their value,” explains Sotheby’s Judaica specialist Esta Kilstein, “is based on quality, date, origin, maker, rarity and provenance.”

Engraved inscriptions, which offer a poignant touch as well as pinpointing a particular time and place, increase their value still further.

Torah readers customarily use slender silver yads, or “hands” in Hebrew, to guide them as they recite the holy text. Many of these ritual pointers, appropriately, feature delicately pointed fingers at their tips. Nineteenth-century yads, depending on their elaboration, weight, length and quality, may run between $1,000 and $3,000.

Rarer, older ones may command up to 10 times as much. Silver breastplates are wide, decorative spans of silver that, attached to delicate chains, are draped over the faces of Torahs. Many display intricately engraved or repoussé menorahs, Solomonic pillars, the Ten Commandments, or ramping Lions of Judah wreathed in filigree or floral borders.

“Breastplates vary in price range within the same century, depending on their quality,” explains Michael Ehrenthal, an owner of Moriah Galleries Antique Judaica in New York City. “ Eighteenth century Polish plates, for example, worked in simple floral ornament and averaging 6 by 8 inches wide, are the least expensive, running from $3,000 to $5,000 apiece. An Austrian breastplate from the 1870s may command some $3,500 to $5,000. Larger and more-elaborate pieces with dated dedications can jump to well over $10,000. Similar ones from Germany can cost over $25,000. Breastplates from the earliest 1800s, if they feature especially rich designs in expansive size, are often worth more.”

Engraved, pierced, antique-silver Torah crowns, as regal as any that grace the crown heads of Europe, are worth anywhere between $500 and $5 million, depending on their age and workmanship, reports Jonathan Greenstein, owner of Greenstein’s Judaica Auction House in New York City. Most, on average, sell for $5,000 apiece.

Hollow silver finials, which often are shaped like Biblical pomegranates and ringed with delicate silver bells, traditionally grace the upper wooden handles that support the Torah scrolls. Prices vary. “A 19th century pair from Austria may bring between $2,500 and $5,000, but rarer ones can command up to $1 million,” Greenstein said.

Considering their value, he advises interested parties to purchase antique Torah ornaments from reputable, licensed auctioneers who offer lifetime guarantees of authenticity and provenance.

Ehrenthal concurs, advising buyers not only to study the market, but also to consult with museums and auction houses before making a purchase. For those with limited means, he suggests collecting Judaica reproductions.

“There’s nothing wrong with reproductions if they are identified as such,” he explains. “There’s a very active market for them, with their price, of course, dependent on their weight, quality, and craftsmanship.” Some, he adds, are quite lovely.

“Most collectors value Judaica for sentimental reasons,” Ehrenthal continues, “but they are also a good investment.”

Austrian, German and Polish silver Torah ornaments dating from 1850 to 1880 worth $1,000 to $5,000, for example, did remarkably well over the past decade, holding stable even in times of economic stress. Items in the $10,000 to $100,000 range also held their value quite well, too. “Most rare 16th- and 17th-century pieces that are in private hands are eventually bequeathed to the Israel Museum or the Jewish Heritage Center Art Museum in Jerusalem, the Jewish Museum in London, or the Jewish Museum in New York, which boasts the most extensive collection in the world,” he said.

The Jewish Museum in Prague is “a very proud custodian” of a significant collection. It holds thousands of confiscated Bohemian and Moravian silver Torah adornments that the Nazis preserved to show the world the remnants of Jewish culture. ?

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The Torah Crown: One family’s story and the artifact that binds them through generations

During World War II, Nazis often maliciously carried out “aktions” against Jews on major religious holidays. Transport lists, for example, document that most of my family, the Amsels from Stropkov, Slovakia, were deported to their deaths on May 23, 1942 — Shavuot. Since my branch of the family had immigrated to America decades earlier, we had long been out of touch. None of us had even known the names of our European cousins.

Through access to an array of documents and interviews with survivors, I eventually was able to compile a personalized description of each. Then by collating this information, I “reconstructed” Stropkov’s Amsel family relationships. Eighty-eight year old Yossl, my great-grandfather, led the list. When I first presented my findings to my father, he did not respond. Yet several months later, he handed me a package, bidding me open it.

Inside, encased in layers of protective tissue paper, lay a simple silver Torah crown. As I lifted it out, turning it round and round in admiration, he said quietly, “Look inside.”
There, in diminutive English and Hebrew script, were engraved the words, “In Remembrance: the Amsels of Stropkov.”

Today it graces a Holocaust-era Torah still in use. ?

Melody Amsel-Arieli is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Antique Trader. She is the author of “Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov.” She lives in Israel.

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