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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Continental carved boxwood circumcision knife, 18th century, 5 1/4 in. Sold for $18,400. Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers
“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,” says Chaim Potok in “Wanderings,” the storyteller’s look at Jewish history published in 1978.

It seems like two very different points of view. Yet Judaic ancestry and artifacts reveal a nation that has managed to survive almost 4,000 years of confrontation. Ambiguity for them is like a roomy old coat.

Jewish artifacts such as silver Kiddush cups and gilt-bronze menorahs are rooted in Jewish heritage. So you might expect the energy in a Judaica auction room to be different than say the energy in an auction room where American furniture is being sold.

“You get the feeling with furniture buyers that they can pretty much take it or leave it,” says specialist Kerry Shrives of Skinner’s, in Bolton, Mass. “Not so, with Judaica. This buyer is emotional and passionate. He knows what he wants and will gladly take part in heated bidding to own it.”

Skinner’s third Judaica auction on Dec. 3, 1996, was a good example. The top prize went to an unusual continental giltwood mirror dated circa-1800. The 89-by 29½ inch ornately carved looking glass featured animals beneath an oak tree, inscribed with a Hebrew blessing, “Whether you’ll have children, life and prosperity depends on your luck.”

Two determined collectors volleyed. Expected to bring $10,000-$15,000, the bidding stopped at $47,150.

“Not only was the mirror rare,” says Shrives. “But it was the first time it had been on the market.” The piece went to an American collector.

On a more painstaking note, an 18th century carved boxwood circumcision knife with double-edged steel blade was estimated to sell for $2,000-$3,000 and brought $18,400.

“It was the first time the knife had been on the market in 30-years,” says Shrives. “It was early, unusual, interesting and beautifully carved.” The circumcision knife sold to the same collector who purchased the mirror.

Judaica collecting resembles other areas of collecting in that older; fresh-to-the-market examples command the most money. Also, rare and unusual items with a solid provenance will rise to the top. People would rather own something when they know where it came from.

“If a piece is European and survived the Holocaust, that’s not a small feat either,” says Shrives. “The desirability again goes up.”

Rare items like the giltwood mirror in this auction garner high prices, but finding them is another matter. Scarcity is a real problem. Fakes crop up.

Other highlights from the sale included a 19th century George III double-barrel form silver Kiddush cup, which sold for $7,188. A French 19th century silver mounted lapis Lazuli Torah pointer brought $8,625.

The three Skinner Judaica sales grossed over $1 million total in the last three years.

Q. Enclosed you will find pictures of a corner cupboard that once belonged to my grandmother. I am 73 now. Hopefully, you can give me some information in your antiques column that I read.

A. You have a spectacular Victorian corner cupboard with an open top and bowfront bottom. It dates to circa 1880.

The incised carving on the lower panels shows an Eastlake influence. Eastlake was named after the English artist-critic Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, whose 1868 book Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details, had a big influence on 19th century decor. He emphasized simple, straightforward lines.

Victorian furniture is sturdy for the most part. So, much of it survived. This is due to its massive size and machine production.

Some early Victorian furniture was handmade but by 1870 most was machine made. Power tools also made it easier to work with dense woods like rosewood.

Victorian furniture became the furniture for the rising middle class. It filled American homes back then as it sometimes does now. Your cupboard appears to be cherry. A realistic value would be $2,000-$2,500.

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