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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Silver-gilt compact; Ilya Schor, circa 1949, 3 inches long, sold for $3,737.50. Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers
As a people, they refused to die and never stopped producing treasures of their national culture even when their homes were lost, their rights were taken away, their presses shattered, and their religion barred.

Jewish silversmiths, painters, engravers, composers and writers continued to work.

“To be a Jew in this century is to understand fully the possibility of the end of mankind, while at the same time believing with certain faith that we will survive,” said Chaim Potok in “Wanderings,” the storyteller’s look at Jewish history published in 1978. Living with ambiguity has always been a part of Jewish culture.

The field of collecting Jewish ceremonial and secular items is called Judaica. Collecting Judaica offers an intimate gaze into a world of ancient rituals, customs and ceremonies. Almost every ritual connected to Jewish religious practice involves the use of some ritual object.

Religious ceremonial objects like spice boxes, Etrog boxes, and Hanukah Menorahs, have remained consistent for centuries even though the Jews have settled almost everywhere in the world. The ritual objects serve as a tie to the past and reinforce the continuity of Jewish history and culture.

Judaica takes many forms. In The Library of Congress is a handwritten manuscript of Einstein’s “Unified Field Theory,” presented to the library by the Jewish author as a symbol of his appreciation of America after fleeing Nazism. Other Judaic treasures in the library include the art of Marc Chagall, Ben Shahn, and the handwritten sheet music of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Irving Berlin, and Arnold Schoenberg.

It’s a growing field evoking lots of passion. That passion is obvious in an auction room. Bidders at a generic auction often have a take it or leave it attitude. Not so with Judaica. These collectors know what they want and are dogged about having it.

There are three main Judaica collecting areas: Hebrew manuscripts and books, ritual objects and fine arts including paintings and graphics. As a rule, older rather than newer objects are more desirable. Collectors would rather have something when they know where it came from. So, provenance is important.

Collectors look for rare and unusual items with beautiful carving or interesting subject matter, and objects that are fresh-to-the-market command higher prices. If an item survived the holocaust, the value goes up.

Scarcity is a real problem, so fakes crop up and replicas sometimes appear as originals. European sugar boxes might turn up with new or changed inscriptions to make them look like Etrog boxes.

It’s a huge field and people tend to specialize. They might collect examples of the same object from a particular period or region. Others might choose to collect an assortment of objects from every known period.

On April 23, Skinner Auctioneers in Boston, Mass., featured its Judaica and silver auction including ceremonial and secular items for both Synagogue and the home. Here are some current values.

Auction Highlights

Torah pointer; North African silver; Hebrew text terminating in a pointed hand; early-20th century; 8 inches long; $345.

Hanukah lamp; Moroccan brass; back plate pierced and chased with Star of David device; late-19th/early-20th century; 12 inches high; $977.50.

Coins of Israel; gold; collector’s coins 1960-1978 in frame; distributed by J.J. Van Grover, LTD, New York; 9.425 oz.; $1,495.

Hevra Kadisha charity container; early-20th century; 8¾ inches high; $2,070.

Postcards; 72 European Synagogues in binder; early-20th century; $2,185.

Passover equipage; Iraqi silver; early-20th century; labeled in Hebrew; 12½ inches high; $3,105.

Silver-gilt compact; Ilya Schor, circa 1949; 3 inches long; $3,737.50.

Oil on panel painting; by Boris Schatz (Russian, 1866-1932); “The Scribe,” in original Bezalel (arts and crafts) brass relief frame; 9 3/8 by 7½ inches; $35,650.

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