Sotheby’s Auctions Mega-Philanthropist’s Judaica Trove


In the largest sale of a single owner’s Judaica collection in more than 50 years, Sotheby’s New York is offering “A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection” at auction on April 29.

With 386 lots, the sale is estimated in excess of $11 million.

Michael Steinhardt, the legendary hedge fund manager and mega-philanthropist best known for his role in launching the Birthright Israel program, told The Jewish Week, “I’m selling it because I am 72 years old and I have been collecting for over 40 years. No one else in my family, sadly, has expressed any deep interest in the collection.”

All the objects will be on view from April 24-28 at Sotheby’s. In a preview tour, John Ward, a senior vice president and head of the silver department at Sotheby’s, described the collection as “a wonderful look in on a culture, how it sometimes intersects with popular taste and is sometimes divergent.”

Highlights include:

♦ a profusely illustrated hand-written copy, produced in Northern Italy circa 1457, of the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’s systematic code of Jewish law (estimated price of $4.5 million to $6 million);

♦a multi-tiered silver Sabbath and festival hanging lamp exquisitely decorated with carvings and figurines, from Frankfurt circa 1710 ($800,000 to $1.2 million);

♦an aquamanile, a North German bronze vessel for hand-washing basin that is in the form of a lion and has a Hebrew inscription from the late 12th century ($200,000 to $400,000).

The collection also includes items priced within reach of novice collectors, with a significant number of lots estimated below $5,000. Both a 19th-century shofar that has Hebrew inscriptions and is possibly from Poland, and an 18th-to-early-19th-century steel tool with a carved and inscribed wooden handle, designed for perforating matzah, carry estimated prices of $200 to $300.

Steinhardt explained the beginnings of his collection: “In the early days, in Jerusalem, I found all sorts of objects that I thought might be tzedakah boxes. I was keenly interested in that form.” Soon, though, he found, “I was not able to constrain myself to just tzedakah boxes and bought a lot of different things.”

“Collecting,” he said, “has its own sort of magic. When you start collecting and you see things analogous to things you bought that you don’t own — something different and perhaps more beautiful — you feel the compulsion to collect some more”

The collection includes more than 50 tzedakah boxes, made of everything from silver, cast iron, brass, wood, copper to tin, and in a variety of forms, including books, open hands and tankards. Several are connected with burial societies. A 20th-century Romanian silvered metal rounded container features a tombstone-shaped back plate bearing the Hebrew inscription, “Charity saves us from death.”

Last week, in anticipation of the exhibition and auction, Sharon Liberman Mintz showed off some of the items in a Sotheby’s viewing room. A highly knowledgeable enthusiast, Mintz, senior consultant for Judaica at Sotheby’s New York and curator of Jewish art at the Jewish Theological Seminary library, explained that the version of the Mishneh Torah that is on sale was originally conceived in two volumes, and the other is now at the Vatican.

On close examination, the parchment is very fine, the colors are brilliant, and the page layout is magnificent, with window panels of commentary set off from the main text.

“This level of manuscript production was of the highest quality,” Mintz said. While the scribe, who had an expert hand, was Jewish, the illustrator was not. Much of medieval manuscript art is a copy of something that came before, although adapted, but the Mishneh Torah has no illustrated tradition. The illuminations here are an original creation.

The frontispiece to Sefer Kinyan, a section about acquiring property, shows two different transactions, one valid and one not, set in a lush field of flowers and trees. As Mintz pointed out, the illustrations exhibit a sophisticated understanding of the text’s meaning.

While the scribe’s identifying mark appears on the book, Mintz and colleagues weren’t able to track down information about him. But she did solve another mystery in the collection, related to an unsigned micrographic illustrated Omer calendar from Germany. The circa-1830 pen-and-ink calendar, used for counting the days between Passover and Shavuot, features miniscule script as design. Mintz found a very similar piece at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, so she was able to attach the artist’s name, Dov Margolioth, to Steinhardt’s calendar.

Another striking and unusual object is a patterned synagogue plaque indicating prayer times, with bold colors and five manual clocks, from Sibiu Romania, painted by the shamash of the shul in 1878. A mid-18th-century illuminated Scroll of Esther, from northern Italy, features decorative panels illustrating the Purim story as well as allegorical figures — it’s the most important decorative Megillah to come to market, according to Mintz ($600,000-$800,000).

The Steinhardt Collection, curated by Cissy Grossman, is particularly strong in textiles, from Torah mantles and Torah binders, to an 1832 Passover towel from Alsace, an embroidered show towel that hung in front of other towels used after ritual hand-washing. One lot comprises 13 European tefillin bags, made of printed cotton and silk, from the late 18th or early 19th century.

“Textiles allow you to capture a certain intimacy — more so than with stone, or bronze,” Steinhardt said. “Look at a yarmulke with gold thread, or a headdress from Poland. These were glorious objects in their time — they capture the nobility of their moment.”

The collection also includes a few prints and paintings; decorated ketubahs, or wedding contracts; many Chanukah menorahs and Havdalah spice towers; commemorative plates and a brass bid indicator for synagogue honors. Almost every piece has a story behind it: A silver-and-gold cigarette case, with detailed openwork relief of figures engaged in religious and secular activities, was made by Ilya Schor as a gift to the artist Mane-Katz, who helped him in Paris (Schor and his wife fled Paris in 1940 and came to New York via Lisbon and Marseille). An inside inscription is engraved in Yiddish, dated 1943.

The 544-page full-color exhibition catalogue features details on each object, and, for the more valuable objects, information on their provenance. A series of thoughtful essays by David Wachtel, senior consultant for Judaica, place the artifacts in historical context. (The catalogue can also be viewed on the Sotheby’s website).

Prices are set by Sotheby’s, based on recent prices of comparable items. Anyone who wants to bid can do so either in person at the auction, by telephone, absentee bid (these can be left at the exhibition) or via online bidding. At the exhibition, visitors considering bidding on the items can request to view them up close.

Steinhardt said he still has a few pieces in his office. And he says he’s going to try to refrain from buying anything new.

Will he be able to?

“I don’t know. Judging from my historic discipline, the answer is probably no.”

He admits that as the auction time approaches, his enthusiasm for selling has faded.

“I’m not sure what will be harder, watching the things sell or not sell.”

The exhibition, “A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection” will be on view at Sotheby’s, 1334 York Ave (72nd Street), April 24-27 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m, and on April 28, from 1 to 5 p.m. The auction on Monday, April 29 will be held in two sessions. See for details.