Silver Judaica is Sign of the Times

“How’s it going?”

As a tough year ended and a new decade began, it seemed a fair question. While The New York Times has looked to bowling alley attendance as a gauge of our nation’s condition, I turned to Jonathan Greenstein and his recent auction of silver Jewish ritual art, or Judaica, to determine the health, wealth and current condition of the Jewish community.

On Jan. 11, 2010, J. Greenstein Co., the country’s only auction house dedicated to Judaica, held a sale of 185 lots including Kiddush cups, Torah shields, finials as well as rare items as an 1830 Chanukah lamp from Alternberg, Germany, (estimated at $65,000-$85,000), that graced the cover of the auction catalogue.

But first, you may be wondering, who is Jonathan Greenstein and what makes him such an expert?

Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Greenstein traces his interest in Judaica to one significant occurrence in his youth: getting kicked out of the Yeshivah of Flatbush in ninth grade.

“My deal with my parents,” Greenstein recounted recently, “was that they would let me go to public school if I got a part-time job.” So beginning at 13 1/2, and for the next three and a half years, Greenstein worked part time in an antiques store. The owner, who was not Jewish, allowed the boy to take Judaica items that caught his eye, in lieu of pay. And so, with a $20 Kiddush cup here and an $80 Kiddush cup there, Greenstein began to collect.

Greenstein went on to Brooklyn College, receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in health administration and pursuing a career in home health care. However, he continued collecting and trading Judaica. When he discovered that although there are silver experts, “there is no expertise in Judaica,” he took it upon himself to become an expert.

Greenstein is the first to admit that his education is not a formal one; it is all “hands on.” What then makes for an expert in silver Judaica?

“Understanding silver, understanding fakes and forgeries, understanding the history of Jewish art, understanding the history of the Jewish people, understanding various art forms,” he said, adding that you also need to “understand silver trademarks and similarities between Jewish and non-Jewish art forms of certain periods.”

In 2003, Chabad, to which he already was a donor, asked Greenstein to organize a charity benefit featuring an auction of Judaica. The event was a success, and Greenstein’s path was set. He got an auctioneer’s license in New York and the following year opened up J. Greenstein and Co. He now holds two auctions a year — this month’s was his 11th, and in February he will be begin accepting items for the next, which will take place in June. Greenstein said he no longer collects for himself (“I don’t want to compete with my clients”), but he does serve as a consultant to other auction houses and for collectors, advising them on what to buy — and what not to buy; what is fake, for example.

Greenstein believes there are more Judaica fakes than in almost any other field. “You can’t buy Judaica in Israel,” Greenstein says referring to antique Judaica. He warns of fakes in almost every shop on King David and Ben-Yehuda streets in Jerusalem. Most common, he says, are fakes with Russian silver marks — Greenstein recommends anyone making a major purchase ask an independent third party to authenticate. (Greenstein is in the process of writing a textbook to help identify fakes.)

In our conversation, Greenstein waxed poetic about the distinctive characteristics of Ashkenazic work from both Western and Eastern Europe — he described a piece from Poland as magnificent because it expressed “the Jewish soul”; he also admires Sephardic work, with its intricate decorations; and even Judaica from the American Colonial era, such as the work of Paul Revere’s contemporary, Meyer Meyer.

Greenstein still owns a health care company, although he has given up its day-to-day operation. Judaica has taken him places, such as into the homes of major Jewish philanthropists, leaders and celebrities whom he would never have had access to “selling wheelchairs,” he said. That has been one of the most rewarding aspects of his journey, he told me.

He said that the majority of Judaica collectors are 50 and over, often non-observant Jews who respond to the pieces aesthetically or because of a connection between the object’s provenance and the buyer’s own heritage. For some, owning Judaica is a way to express their connection to Judaism. Sometimes the emotional response trumps a rational assessment of authenticity, or, for that matter, value.

Which brings me back to the marketplace. I asked Greenstein how the economic downturn and the Madoff fraud had impacted the current Judaica market.

“A lot more things have become available,” he said. “A lot of things popped out of the woodwork in the last couple of years.” And the unique pieces did well.

“Quality will always sell,” Greenstein explained. “There’s a concept of ‘fresh’ when something hasn’t been on the market for 20 or 25 years.” For example, “there’s a menorah that Sotheby’s had that had a provenance of 130 years in one family…. It’s never been on the market in my lifetime — they estimated [it] at $200,000-$300,000. I went up to $250,000 on behalf of a client — it sold for just under half a million — $470,000 hammer [plus commissions and taxes]. When things are fresh, unseen and sexy, they go for a lot of money.”

Which brings us to his Jan. 11 auction. Greenstein offered up 185 lots — of which 50 did not sell or meet their minimum. The top-selling items, with one exception, sold at the low end of the estimate (the Chanukah lamp on the catalogue cover sold for $65,000), and the item that topped the estimate, a silver etrog container, sold for $2,500 above the high estimate. Yet Greenstein assured me that “the sale was our best,” selling a total of $550,000 worth of Judaica, a record-breaking sale.

“The Judaica market is very strong,” Greenstein said. These days, he said, “people are investing in tangible assets,” adding that these “were not 2007 prices.” The market, he said, had become rational, not emotional. He added that he is so enthusiastic about the market that he has moved up his next auction from August to June.

So to recap: “How are things?”

Things are not what they were. Quality and “freshness” matters. People who didn’t think they would need to be in the marketplace as sellers, are. As a result, things have rationalized and there is optimism about the future.

Welcome to the new “new.” Welcome to 2010.

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Copyright 2010 Tommywood