Published: November 10, 2015
Review and Onsite Photos by W.A. Demers;
Catalog Photos Courtesy of Westport Auction
WESTPORT, CONN. — Westport Auction, owned by Kate and Travis Worrell, emerged a few years ago as a staple in Fairfield County, offering once-monthly estate auctions of locally sourced fine and decorative arts in their gallery adjacent to the Metro-North train station. On October 27, they tried something new — a dedicated auction featuring the Peter Ehrenthal collection of Judaica from Moriah Galleries. It may have been a new venture for the Worrells but it was not outside their comfort zone and they were ably assisted by experts Avi Girshengorn, who has his own New York City Judaica gallery, called Menorah, and Meir Appel.
With a beautifully produced 171-page full color catalog and a storied collection to offer, the sale attracted an international field of dealers and collectors — all motivated to pick up great pieces at “fire sale” prices.
What that means, according to Girshengorn, who spoke to Antiques and The Arts Weekly after the sale, was that patrons of Ehrenthal’s Moriah Gallery, which recently closed after 60 years of operation, were used to seeing high prices on items. A case in point was a $120,000 gallery price tag that was still affixed to one of the lots offered in the sale — a monumental Polish synagogue cast iron charity box. For this sale, however, there were no reserves, and the three-section box, replete with exhibition provenance and historical notes in the catalog, was given a $2/3,000 estimate. It ended up selling for $4,500, a price more aligned with reality in the Judaica market, said Girshengorn.
“Peter Ehrenthal was known for ‘crazy’ prices,” he said, “and anyone going to Moriah Galleries knew that the prices were going to be high. For this sale, items were offered so that dealers could have an opportunity to get something at a good price and perhaps make some money selling. All sides were happy — buyers and consignor.”
Moriah Galleries was founded by Ehrenthal in 1957 and its collection of antique Judaica was encyclopedic and international in scope. Among the well-known private collections it helped form were those of Asea and Jacobo Furman and Judy and Michael Steinhardt. The $8.5 million Steinhardt collection sale by Sotheby’s in March 2013 was characterized the most valuable auction of Judaica ever conducted. In addition to seeding great collections, the gallery also loaned items for museum exhibitions around the globe and conducted its own exhibitions, most notably “The Eternal Jew: Objects of Hatred from the Peter Ehrenthal Collection,” which comprised more than 600 anti-Semitic artifacts and images that documented centuries of hatred toward the Jewish culture.
Ehrenthal had reason to ponder anti-Semitism as his own biography reflected the Jewish experience over two centuries. According to catalog notes, he was born in Romania in 1920. Having lost many of his family members in the Holocaust, he attempted to immigrate to Palestine in 1947 but was intercepted en route and deported by the British to the island of Cyprus where he was detained in an internment camp. Israel’s establishment as a state in 1948 led him to Tel Aviv where he was trained as a jeweler. In 1957, he came to New York City where he was soon designing jewelry and synagogue ornaments. His love for antique Judaica drew him to open Moriah Galleries and dedicate the rest of his life to preserving that heritage through Jewish artifacts and art.
The sale catalog deftly organized the concept of Judaica — essentially a record of Jewish life, its human rhythms, rituals and history. Thus, the first section of the sale, lots 1–9, featured items relating to birth — pregnancy amulets, circumcision sets, antique swaddling cloths and the like. Then it was on to Bar Mitzvah, marriage, death, festivals, relics of antiquity. And other sections of the sale were organized around geography, with items from Western Europe, Jerusalem and Palestine and America.
The top lot in the sale was a rare German or Silesian Torah crown, circa 1620, possibly the oldest crown known, according to catalog notes. Selling for $24,000, the round frame repoussé was alive with “C” scrolls and rocailles and was set with four enamel plaques with the words “Ketter Torah” as well as semiprecious stones. Again, though rare, it did not command the high prices that similar crowns have received at auction — in the $100/150,000 range — according to Girshengorn because “it had been restored, it wasn’t in the best of shape and didn’t have documentation beyond Ehrenthal exhibition references.”
Another Torah crown offered in the sale, a Polish Twentieth Century example decorated in Eighteenth Century style, had more decorative than important historical appeal and thus realized a reasonable $5,400.
A tour de force of Polish Judaic craftsmanship was a rare silver architectural Chanukah lamp, circa 1850. It was chased by four phone bidders and ultimately was won by one of them for $22,800. The lamp had all the bells and whistles of a masterwork, according to Girshengorn “More than 150 years old with all the important Jewish motifs — birds, deer, lions, even the crest symbol of the Russian/Polish area, all hand hammered with incredible detail, it’s a very special piece,” said Girshengorn.
There were many Chanukah lamps presented in this sale, but this one was clearly an important example, with a back plate applied with columns with deer finials flanking a pedestal with two lions holding an ark with Decalogue. Inside the ark was a Torah scroll. The upper part of the back plate is fitted with a canopy topped by birds and vases with flowers and centered by a finial of crowned double-headed eagle, commonly associated with the Byzantine Empire. Further, a bench-shaped platform holds eight lion-shaped oil containers flanked by two rampant lions on a gallery surrounding three sides.
Another Chanukah lamp, this one an Eighteenth Century Italian hanging silver example in the classical style of the period, was beautifully hand wrought with repoussé of exceptional quality. It sold for $21,600. And yet another lamp exuded folk art tradition by taking the form of a sofa crafted in pewter. Possibly from Vienna, 1842, and similar to one in the prewar Berlin Jewish Museum, the lamp featured a lift-up seat cushion providing access to its oil reservoirs. Estimated $600/800, it went out at $2,280.
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium. For more information, 203-222-3448 or www.westportauction.com.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm