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Steinhardt Collection at Sotheby’s

The philanthropist’s sale of his extensive personal Judaica keeps Jewish culture in the limelight

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Abraham Pavian, the shamas, or caretaker, of the first synagogue in the Romanian town of Hermannstadt (now known as Sibiu), painted this plaque (est. $8,000-$12,000) in 1878 and set it with five manual clocks designating the times for daily morning and afternoon prayers as well as Sabbath services. (All images courtesy of Sotheby's New York)
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With a reported net worth of over $1 billion, Michael Steinhardt presumably doesn’t need the money. But at 72, the philanthropist and hedge-fund magnate felt it was time to offer a new generation the chance to discover his treasures. More than 400 pieces encapsulating the Jewish experience—from the collection of Steinhardt and his wife, Judy—will be offered in a landmark sale at Sotheby’s on Monday estimated to make more than $11 million. In a characteristically candid interview, he said that, despite his patronage of arts institutions from the Metropolitan to the Israel Museum, he never thought about donating the collection.

“There’s a virtue in these things being in homes rather than on some museum shelf,” he said. By many accounts, Steinhardt’s collection, focusing on ceremonial objects for home and synagogue, is the most significant of its kind to come to market in the half century since the 1964 Sotheby’s auction of Judaica amassed by Polish émigré Michael Zagayski.

By choosing to auction his Judaica, it seems that Steinhardt—an avowed atheist who has nonetheless donated more than $125 million to Jewish causes, including Birthright and the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life—is trying to attract others like himself who approach the field as collectors and for whom Judaism is tied to cultural identity. In 2000 Steinhardt told me he deemed his effort to reestablish faith through Judaica collecting unsuccessful, but he hastened to add, “I feel intensely Jewish and derive great pleasure from seeing and being able to preserve these precious objects.”

These mixed sentiments persist. Steinhardt isn’t terribly nostalgic about letting go—“I don’t think I ever said to myself today I’m going to sit and look at my Judaica,” he said. Yet he admits there is “a certain intimacy” with these pieces, each of which he selected with his curator of over 20 years, Cissy Grossman, making them “more personal” than his collections of ancient or modern art.

Given issues of scarcity and authenticity in Judaica, the sheer availability of so much pedigreed material makes this Sotheby’s sale a rare event. Steinhardt is selling what museum consultant Gabriel Goldstein called “the very strongest pieces,” which are often sold off before collections come to auction. The sale also includes a large number of early pieces, more than 100 from the 18th century or earlier, compared with just a few at most in a typical sale. Another leading collector, the U.S.-born, Israel-based Bill Gross, adds that even mid-range items are in many cases “the finest examples of their genre.”

Notwithstanding the lineup of star lots, led by a lavishly illustrated 15th-century manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, a companion to a volume in the Vatican, there is a broad range of estimates, starting at $200-$300. Roughly two-thirds of the lots carry estimates below $10,000, despite steadily rising prices in the field over the last two decades.

The sale is also a fleeting opportunity to explore a broad but well-structured collection that Elka Deitsch, senior curator of the Judaica museum at New York’s Temple Emanu-El, describes as “beautifully assembled” and “a microcosm of Jewish ritual and life in a very effective way.” Beyond myriad objects documenting universal Jewish practice and local influences and more than 25 works on paper capturing the highs and lows of Jewish history, there are around 90 textiles, likely the most extensive group ever to come to market, according to Sotheby’s senior Judaica consultant Sharon Liberman Mintz. In Steinhardt’s estimation, no matter that he is “never one to beat my chest,” these pieces “writ large represent the meaningful potion of the religious history of our people.”

So far, there haven’t been notable cries about the collection being broken up. Unlike the Valmadonna Trust Library, the world’s leading private collection of Hebraic books and manuscripts, which has been available for private sale through Sotheby’s for over four years now awaiting the right buyer, Steinhardt’s collection doesn’t have “intrinsic wholeness,” as Mintz puts it. Gross says his children should do the same after he’s gone. “They’re not interested, so why shouldn’t these objects go back to the broad public in the same way I’ve been able to find and enjoy them.”

In fact, while Sotheby’s is surely in the business of making money, sources inside and outside the auction house agree the sale dovetails with Steinhardt’s initiatives to further awareness of Jewish life. Over the past four months, Sotheby’s experts have given talks and previewed highlights in Brazil, England, Hong Kong, Italy, Israel, and Moscow and put together a sumptuous, 542-page, $65 catalog. If the preview at Sotheby’s New York headquarters this week is anything like the Valmadonna exhibition in 2009—which drew some 11,000 people over 10 days (making it less popular only than such celebrity estates as those of Jackie O. and the duke and duchess of Windsor)—it will be, in the words of 93-year-old New York dealer Peter Ehrenthal, who sold Steinhardt an early foundation of pieces in the 1990s, “something to behold.”

Click on the link to the left to see a slideshow of selected lots from the Sotheby’s sale.

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marjorie says:

gorgeous. the house ring! and doesn’t it look like there’s a woman sacrificing an animal in the maimonides piece? odd, no? and i love the religious-iconography cigarette case — way to elevate the profane!

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Steinhardt Collection

Judaica sale at Sotheby’s
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