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Prove It: Why Provenance Matters for Antique Judaica

Russian Gold-washed Silver Temple-form Hanukkah Lamp

Russian Gold-washed Silver Temple-form Hanukkah Lamp, Kiev, 1890s: Auctioned for $189,600.

The vast majority of items that cross the auction block don’t have storied pasts. They were not owned by world-famous personalities; they belonged to individuals just like me and you.

In the antiques world, provenance indicates an attachment to a famous person or to a famous collection.  Almost without exception, auction buyers will pay more for something with good provenance if there is documentation to prove it.

Documentation is not just family lore: a fragment of paper in great aunt Mildred’s hand noting the story she heard when she received the item as a gift doesn’t count. Provenance is actual proof. It is the proverbial photograph of Moses holding the tablets on Mt. Sinai. Anything less is just a good story, and will appear in an auction catalogue as “according to the family,” or more harshly “by repute.”

My Fine Judaica auction in 2009 included a collection of antique Judaica that arrived on the doorstep without any provenance laid out. Then a mention of a 1940s Sotheby’s auction made me wonder… and some deft research brought me to a Boston-area reference library where I found the Parke-Bernet auction catalogue for “The Renowned Collection of Jewish Ritual Silver Belonging to Mrs. Mira Salomon.” I was thrilled to see recognizable silver Torah Crowns, Torah Breast Plates, Hanukkah Lamps and more.

This was great! The items in the Skinner Judaica auction were now documented to 1949.

I was in for a surprise, because this wasn’t all.  Footnotes mentioned two prior publications. I tracked down Apollo Magazine from 1929 in the Fine Arts Reference Room of the Boston Public Library. The other source: Hebraica, Documents d’Art Juif couldn’t be found in any area library, so I used the ultimate tool, Google, and located the one copy available for sale at the time online. I purchased the folio and waited for delivery.

Salomon collection catalogue

Auction Catalogue for the Salomon Collection

Antique Judaica, Salomon collection

Antique Judaica from the Salomon collection, Paris, c. 1930. Look in the lower left of the image for the Hanukkah lamp pictured above.

It was well worth the wait. The images were fabulous, and to see these very same items that I had been admiring and handling daily in situ in pre-war France was stunning.

I wasn’t alone. For prospective bidders, this information was significant.  The silver items were indisputably old. They belonged to Jewish owners in pre-war France, had survived the Holocaust and were offered at Parke-Bernet (Sotheby’s) in New York in 1949. This was all the information bidders needed to drive prices. The items in and of themselves were special, and the provenance accompanying the silver pushed auction interest to staggering levels. The auction was much more than a sale; it was one more step on a long and storied journey for these remarkable objects.


11 thoughts on “Prove It: Why Provenance Matters for Antique Judaica

  1. Kerry,
    Being Jewish, I particularly enjoyed your piece.
    You write, “In the antiques world, provenance indicates an attachment to a famous person or to a famous collection.” I don’t think provenance necessarily involves someone or something being famous.
    The definition for the term that I like is this one: “The history of the ownership of an object, especially when documented or authenticated.”
    I would like to share the following “Jewish” story with you. I am first generation — my mother was from Romania, my father from Russia. When my father died and I was helping my mother move, I came across a small ladle with a mother-of-pearl handle.
    “Would you like that?” my mother asked? “I would love it,” I responded. “Well it’s yours. Take good care of it,” she admonished.
    I fashioned a special piece for displaying my prized new possession. When I would look at it, I would always conjure up in my mind that this was a special piece smuggled out of the “old country” to take to the West End of Boston, where my parents took up residence.
    One Passover, I asked my mother for the story behind the ladle — the provenance. “Oh,” she said, “One day your father and I were having lunch in Chinatown and I saw it in the window of a gift shop and he bought it for me.”
    You know what — I like that story even better than the one I made up.
    –Colman Herman

    • For whatever it’s worth, Skinner and it readers should realize that clicking “online Judaica” (see the above comment) brings you to a commercial website selling “Jewish” items.

      • Thanks for unlinking “online judaica,” the previous commenter. I hate it when commercial enterprises such as this one try to insert themselves into online places where they don’t belong so that can sell their wares.

  2. when viewing antique judaica, espcially ritual items i always have a mixed feeling. This is especially true when i travel in Europe. In part i am so happy that these objects have surived the ages but i always wonder if perhaps their history is one of tragedy. I marvel at their beauty and feel conected to my own heritage but do they represent also synagougues burned and destroyed, persecution, desperation and genocide. i dont expect you to print this but as someone who always has appreciated your apraisals when i watch them on Roadshow, i would love for your feelings on this subject. thanks

    • On my list of the most memorable antique Judaica items auctioned at Skinner is a silver-gilt Torah Breast Plate from Breslau, attributed to Georg Kahlert the younger and dating from the mid-18th century. At 16 inches tall, its form is impressive, and much larger than typically found. Far from pristine, the piece had been deliberately divided into quarters by a clean vertical then horizontal cut (view the pictures). In the late 19th century (judging from the hallmarks) it was carefully re-assembled, yet with no attempt to mask the prior damage.

      I’ve often imagined the journey of this piece from past to present. Was it defiance against Pogroms that led to its careful reduction in size so that it could be hidden, smuggled and kept safe for future generations? No doubt there is sadness, but also abiding strength and heroic acts.

      • thank you for you wonderful and interesting reply…what amazing witnesses these pieces are….and if we try hard enough they really do speak of a peoples faith, perserverenceand and bravery.

          • well…i will reply then…your story is really sweet and touching and funny in a very gentle way. i myself often imagined many things about my ancestors past in the “old country”. My grandmother was never very forthcoming about the family past. I have found this very common among other jewish people i have spoken with whose ancestors came here at the turn of the century.

  3. Thanks your nice words Charles.
    My experience has been the same. One time, for example, when I asked my mother about her life in Romania, she started to cry. I never asked again.

    • I left out a word — sorry.
      Thanks for your nice words Charles.
      My experience has been the same. One time, for example, when I asked my mother about her life in Romania, she started to cry. I never asked again.

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