Mixed fortunes for Judaica market in wake of Madoff

The Art Newspaper 17 June 2009
By David D’Arcy 

Rabbi Schindler’s widow aims to recoup lost savings

At a much-hyped Judaica auction held in New York on 8 June by J. Greenstein & Co., an 18th-century silver-and-diamond Torah pointer sold for double its estimate at $28,060 (with commission), and the Jewish Museum in Berlin paid $10,980 for a modern Torah crown.   

Both objects had belonged to the prominent rabbi Alexander M. Schindler (1925-2000), former leader of the Reform Jewish Movement. They were consigned by Rabbi Schindler’s widow, Rhea, who lost her entire savings with the financial swindler Bernard Madoff. Rabbi Schindler (like Elie Wiesel, whose foundation Madoff also defrauded), was a refugee from the Holocaust.

However, the $350,000 Greenstein sale did not do a great deal to ease the plight of Madoff victims—Mrs Schindler must now sell her family home to raise cash—and sent mixed messages about the current Judaica market, in which Greenstein is a minor player. High estimates and reserves deterred bidding. Buyers seeking bargains in a sale double its usual size (225 lots) waited for prices to drop, and consignors, however desperate, were not desperate enough to lower reserves. The increased volume, said Jonathan Greenstein, was because of “the financial meltdown. People have to sell things to raise capital”. 

Some 40% of the lots sold. A silver inscribed menorah (est. $8,000-15,000) given by a Jewish women’s group in 1965 to Sammy Davis, Jr—a convert to Judaism—found no bidders. 

Jonathan Greenstein noted that few of his clients collect Judaica exclusively. “A lot of my clientele is the Park Avenue crowd from 50th to 90th, Beverly Hills. They ran in the same circles with Bernie Madoff.”  

Provenance is another hurdle. Most silver ceremonial objects from Europe before World War II are unprovenanced and untraceable. And Judaica has its own looted art problem. Objects seized in the Nazi era that surface in auction catalogues have been claimed by the congregations that were pillaged. (After 1945, Jewish organisations sent “heirless” works, often mistakenly, to newer congregations.) 

Fakes are also a problem. “There is so little material of the 18th century and earlier that there is this great temptation either to make outright fakes or to embellish period pieces and make them ‘judaica’,” said Kerry Shrives at Skinner in Boston. “Judaica is the most faked and forged collectible, or probably only second to Fabergé,” added Mr Greenstein, who has organised auctions since 2003, and holds two sales per year.  

The Schindler heirlooms were gifts to the rabbi on his retirement from the Union for Reform Judaism in 1990. “We looked for anything in our house that we could sell,” said Rabbi Schindler’s daughter, Elisa, a fundraiser for the Jewish National Fund, which had not invested with Madoff. “We were very reticent about coming forward. It’s a very hard thing to publicly have people know.”  

As consignments rise, some major collectors avoid the auction market. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem does not buy at auction and the Skirball Musuem in Los Angeles limits its acquisitions to gifts. However, Judaica has performed well in a season that began with revelations that Madoff, who admitted his guilt, had been preying on Jewish clients and institutions for years.  

The 21 May sale at Skinner brought more than $1.2m, with a 1787 silver ark-shaped Hannukkah lamp fetching $314,000, more than five times its estimate. The sale benefited from fine material and realistic estimates, said Ms Shrives. 

Rarity in the marketplace is a relative term, stressed Greenstein, hinting that the Madoff effect could still help feed the block: “There’s more Judaica in the apartments of New York than there is in the museums of the world—and you can quote me on that.”
© website copyright Central Registry 2023