Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Auctions & Shows Writing Samples
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971
"16th century Hebrew Bible brings $80,000, AntiqueWeek 42 (May 9, 2011) Kestenbaum & Company specializes in Judaica:  Mostly rare books and manuscripts but also fine art and ceremonial objects.   What to sell was never in doubt for founder Daniel Kestenbaum, who has worked in the Judaica book market since adolescence.  Where to set up the auction house was also a straightforward decision.  Kestenbaum, who is English, describes the London market as "too sedate" and Jerusalem as "too remote."  New York was just right. "It worked better here," he says.  "New York is the center of the art market." He held his first sale in 1996. Kestenbaum & Company's 50th jubilee auction took place on February 24, 2011.   It was standing room only, which meant there was a quorum for prayers. Judaica sales tend to be rich in local color, attracting greybeards in black hats and long coats.  There is no Powerpoint show.  Instead a soberly dressed lady exhibits the lots.  She holds the books backwards-well, it looks backwards if you are accustomed to reading from left to right. Remarked curator Arthur Kiron, who traveled from Philadelphia to bid on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, "Kestenbaum and Company auctions are really quite special in that they bring together people from a variety of different backgrounds who share a common interest in Judaica.  The opportunities to meet people, discuss lots, and share information are invaluable." Kestenbaum agrees: "Those who come enjoy the fraternity of curators and dealers."  But he adds that most of the bidding takes place offsite. Although the auction house was founded in the early years of the World Wide Web, this was the first sale to offer Internet bidding. The experience was, he says, "very worth while." While Judaica may seem like an exotic niche market, the field has its share of surprise consignors. Take the Wisconsin woman who discovered on a church-sponsored trip to Israel that her mother's first cousin was Oskar Schindler, the Nazi industrialist who rescued hundreds of Jews during World War II. A search through old family papers turned up a letter written by young Oskar in 1920, requesting American postage stamps.  Schindler was, in Kestenbaum's words, "a giant historical figure," whose childhood is largely undocumented.  The ordinariness of the correspondence contrasts with the drama of his later life.  The letter together with two photographs and an autograph postcard sold for an impressive $8,000. (Prices do not include buyer's premium.) There was also crossover with the collectibles market.   A Yiddish guide to the 1939 World's Fair sold for $350  and a group of six sermons and prayers for the English royal family sold for $250. In children's literature, a first edition (1951) of Good Shabbos, Everybody with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, was bought in ($7/900). The highlights, however, were religious books.  Bidding was strong for the Second Biblia Rabbinica, the Hebrew Bible that was published in Venice in 1524-25 ($80,000). Of the more than a dozen Hagadahs (the text that is read on Passover), the star was printed on vellum and illustrated with half-tone reproductions by Arthur Szyk, who cast the story of the slaves' escape from Egypt as an allegory for Nazi persecution of the Jews. It was published in England in 1939-40 in an edition of 125. The final bid for this monument to British book arts was $40,000.  Two other Hagadahs were published in Regency England.  The first was published in 1806 and has folding maps of Palestine ($1800).  The second was published in 1813 and has Hebrew and Spanish text on facing pages ($1100). Both were from the private library of Iberian Judaica that was assembled by the Cassuto family beginning in the 19th century.  The library is being sold in parts by Kestenbaum & Company and Swann Auction Galleries, also in New York. The Cassuto library is rich in Inquisition literature.  The University of Pennsylvania Libraries acquired an unpublished French manuscript on the history of the Inquisition in the Low Countries ($6500).  They also picked up a polemic attacking the Inquisition that was published in 1619, and is possibly the only such work to have been published in Spain.  The final bid was a runaway $9500.  Also from the Cassuto library:  A first edition (1530) of the best-selling tract Der Gantz Jüdische Glaub by a rabbi's son who converted to Christianity during the Reformation; it squeaked past the low estimate to $3250.  In the same spirit is the Nazi-era publication whose title translates as The Poisonous Toadstool; the crisp color plates and original linen-backed pictorial covers are reflected in the final bid of $1600. And under H for Holocaust was a German handbook for Jewish immigrants to America that was issued in 1940 ($1200). The author died in a concentration camp. The sale also included metalwork. A gilt-bronze Chanukah lamp that was made in Italy during the 17th century, went for $18,000.  The cherubs, grotesque mask, and foliate scrolls are representative of Baroque ornament while the coat of arms is attributed to a Marrano family of Spanish origin.  Also worth noting: a hanging Sabbath lamp with a six-pointed star oil container.  It was a popular design during the 19th century, but many models that come on the market are missing parts.  This one was complete; hence the final bid of $850. The auction ended on a high note with the sale of a bench made of wood printer's blocks of the Hebrew alphabet arranged in the form of the continental United States ($5,000). Kestenbaum is hopeful about the future of the trade. At every auction there are a few new people in their thirties and forties, he says.  While they tend not to collect with the intensity and single-mindedness of earlier generations, they're not hobbyists either, who relegate Judaica to a discrete part of their lives. "Judaica is not in a ghetto-I use the word deliberately," Kestenbaum says. "Cultural connectivity" is his phrase to describe the yearning some of his clients express.  Their motives can be religious, genealogical, or historical. At the same time, institutional sales are strong. Proof of Kestenbaum's optimism: the auction house is expanding to include Kosher and Israeli wines.  Kestenbaum & Company is a boutique auction house that caters to many facets of Jewish life.