The gavel came down on impressive auctions of Judaica last month, including the record-setting sale of a rare biblical commentary dated 1457.
That Italian manuscript of writings by Solomon Ben Issac, the 11th-century French rabbi and commentator known as Rashi, eventually sold to a private buyer who phoned in the winning bid of $434,000. The Dec. 17 sale represented the highest price ever achieved by the auction house, Kestenbaum & Company, for a single lot.
The Rashi commentary was one of 18 lots of "Magnificent Hebrew Manuscripts, Incunabula and Other Valuable Hebrew Books" – all from the collection of Jews’ College, London, a rabbinical seminary founded in 1855 and once chaired by Sir Moses Montefiore. Fourteen lots sold, for a total just shy of $1 million.
The phenomenal prices led one expert to deem the auction "a benchmark in the annals of Hebrew typography and Hebrew books sales."
The previous week, the collector Daniel M. Friedenberg similarly claimed to have "set the standard for collections of Judaica antiquities" with an auction at Christie’s. After more than six decades of collecting, the former curator at New York’s Jewish Museum put a selection of 30 objects – jar handles, stone reliefs, incantation bowls, oil lamps, stamp seals and glassware – on the block and garnered $353,246.
"I did well," the reed-thin New Yorker said after the Dec. 12 auction at Rockefeller Center. His was the first single-owner collection of ancient Judaica ever offered by a major auction house, an important distinction in a field where documenting an object’s history can add considerable value.
Friedenberg’s collection included a 5th century C.E. scarab-shaped hematite disc that he said he bought from Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan in 1962 for $250. It sold at auction for more than 10 times that amount. The top lot from the collection, an early basalt column capital carved with a relief of a seven-branched menorah, went for $81,260.
Also sold was a hexagonal glass jar, known as a "pilgrim jar," from Byzantine Period Jerusalem (circa 578 to 629 C.E.). At $53,775, the jar was another top seller, but for Friedenberg, it had a more profound value.
"My father left that to me," he said. "I treasured it greatly." His father, Samuel, had a private museum of Jewish art and artifacts, mostly medals and plaques that were later given to the Jewish Museum.
Friedenberg said he decided to hold the Christie’s auction so that other collectors could benefit and learn from the artifacts, as he had.
"None of us own anything, we just have it for a short time," he said, adding that he was in the process of auctioning off collections of coins, fine art and Pre-Columbian artifacts.