Published: December 29, 2015
Avi Girshengorn is one of two principals who in December introduced a new and fresh spirit in the world of Judaica by opening Menorah Gallery at the Manhattan Art & Antiques Center on Second Avenue in New York City. With his business partner, Meir Appel, Girshengorn is a knowledgeable source and an enthusiastic champion of this new venue for the Jewish antiques market, offering an extensive selection of antique Jewish ritual objects and art. Antiques and The Arts Weekly first caught up with the Judaica expert at Westport Auction’s October 2015 sale of the Peter Ehrenthal collection of Judaica from Moriah Galleries where he and Appel served as advisors to the firm as it conducted its inaugural foray into this collecting category.
Can you size the Judaica collecting market in the United States?
Every Jewish family is a bit of a collector because in every home you go to you are going to find a few menorahs, spice boxes and so on. Does that make someone a collector? I’m not sure. If we are going to consider people like Max Berry in Washington, D.C., or Avrum Halperin, who came to the Westport auction from New York City, these are the highest level of collectors in the United States who can afford to buy things from $5,000 to $1 million, and this group numbers between ten and 20 people around the world. Then we have people who collect Judaica, not really the expensive pieces but the piece they remember from their homeland, something in the range of $500 and $1,000. We can say there are thousands in this tier who collect Chanukah lamps like they remember from Israel, or who collect Israeliana or objects from the Bezalel School because they remember these items from Jerusalem.
Since it is a global market as well, what are some of the international centers of interest?
Israel, of course, because most people emigrated there from Germany and other European countries. There are also many collectors in Europe, such as England, France, Germany, Belgium and Austria; there are perhaps several major collectors here, but they tend to hide their collections. It’s not like here in the United States, not necessarily due to anti-Semitism but just a different mentality. Here, people want to show their collection and share it with others. In Europe, not so much.
Is there any one category that is in the ascendancy these days, such as ritual objects or those designed for daily devotionals?
Early synagogue items, like Torah rimonim, crowns, shields and so on are coming up in price, because people want to own something unusual rather than, say, a Chanukah lamp that was made for the house or another amulet that was made for the baby. They want something made for one synagogue, a one-of-a-kind item. On the other end, we can say that private collectors still like folk art pieces, perhaps something used by their grandfather or grandmother in the old shtetl.
Is it better to collect via auctions or trusted galleries?
Moriah Gallery, where most of the items in the Westport auction came from, was once the only gallery in the world that was devoted to and supplied Judaica. So back then, it was either auction or only Moriah Gallery. But then they put a high price on every item because they actually paid a lot of money, sometimes more than the market value. As a collector, five or ten years ago I would prefer to go to auctions because the prices were much more reasonable. But here’s another thing. Moriah Gallery used to go many times to Israel or all over the world and he had his hands on the rare pieces. So sometimes people had to go buy from him because he was “King of Judaica.” Today, it’s a little bit changed, and I don’t want to take credit for myself or my gallery to say that if you can go to my gallery or someone you trust and he brings you a great, authentic piece in addition to the research, then you may not have to wait a year for the annual Judaica auction at Sotheby’s.
Since few objects have maker’s marks or signatures, how do you guard against fakes or reproductions?
There are some problem areas to be aware of. Poland, for example, has recast some easy-to-cast brass items. I am in the business so have studied fakes and what is and what is not authentic. I look for things like residue of certain oils on candleholders; the feet on certain objects will show wear from being moved over the centuries, the tip of a Torah pointer should see wear from having been pulled a hundred years or more over parchment, a mezuzah that was on the doorpost of traditional Jewish home will be smooth in certain places. If you know how people have used the object, you can determine if it is real or not.
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