NEW YORK, 18 December 2020 – Driven by demand from private collectors and cultural institutions, Sotheby’s dedicated auction of Judaica from the legendary Sassoon family achieved $5 million, comfortably exceeding the pre-sale estimate of $2.1/3.3 million, and with an outstanding 96% of lots sold. The sale was led by a highly important 18th-Century Parcel-Gilt Silver Torah Shield, Signed and Dated In Hebrew by Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav, representing one of the most important pieces of Judaic metalwork to appear at auction in a generation, and was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for $1,351,000 (estimate $600/900,000).
Together with the auction of Important Judaica, Sotheby’s annual auctions of Judaica totaled $6.8 million.
Auction Total: $5 Million
Sharon Liberman Mintz, Senior Consultant of Books and Manuscripts at Sotheby’s, stated: “It’s been an incredible privilege to handle these amazing artifacts of Judaica from the esteemed Sassoon family, for whom Sotheby’s has had the honor of hosting a series of sales since 1970. Bidders from all over the world competed to own a piece of renowned history of a family, who had been the most significant collectors of Judaica in the last two centuries. The dazzling quality of the objects together with the storied legacy of the family contributed to the fantastic results of yesterday’s sale.”
Assembled over the course of more than a century by the fabled “Rothschilds of the East,” yesterday’s sale offered a treasure trove of gilded silver objects, rare Hebrew manuscripts, textiles and family artifacts that have descended in the family since its earliest days, with items assembled during their residencies in Baghdad, Bombay, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston acquired the sale’s top offering – a highly important 18th-Century Parcel-Gilt Silver Torah Shield, Signed and Dated in Hebrew by Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav, which sold for $1,351,000 after competition from three phone bidders (left, estimate $600/900,000). Created in 1782, and probably made in Lemberg (Lviv) – an important 18th century Jewish center in modern-day Ukraine – the shield is not only extraordinary in its craftsmanship, but is now attributable to the Jewish silversmith, Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav. As Jews of Western Europe were, for the most part, barred from joining the guilds. this is an extraordinary document from the era of the Enlightenment, and the date and signature of the artist represents a proud proclamation of Jewish artistry. The shield evokes in miniature the towering carved wooden Torah Arks of Eastern European synagogues and is intricately engraved on the back with a scene from the story of Isaac in an exuberant rococo setting.
Another superb jewel-like Torah Shield attributed to Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav, circa 1780, sold for $685,000 (right, estimate $500/800,000). As with the above example, the front of this Torah Shield is decorated with the Tablets of the Law, surrounded by fantastic animals and beasts, but is distinguished by the back of the design, which the artist engraved with a highly detailed diagram of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem including labeled architectural and religious features, all surrounded by a frieze of worshippers in characteristic 18th century Jewish dress leading animals for sacrifice, engraved at the top with the Binding of Isaac.
Although the artist’s name only appears on the first shield, their matching and highly distinctive decoration allows us to attribute both to him, in addition to a similar third shield (now in the Israel Museum), that was offered by the Sassoon’s through Sotheby’s Tel Aviv in 2000, and achieved the then record-breaking price of almost $800,000. The shields were formerly in the collection of Reuben David Sassoon, who lent them to the 1887 Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in London. However, the full story and historic significance of these three works could not be appreciated until now, when the two companion shields have appeared - for the first time since the historic 1906 Whitechapel exhibition Jewish Art and Antiquities.
Additional standout results for silver included A Rare Set of Chinese Export Parcel-Gilt Silver-Cased Torah Scroll and Haftarah Scroll, the scrolls sent by Rabbi Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad (the Ben Ish Hai) to Flora Sassoon, which achieved $453,600 – over 5x its high estimate (estimate $50/80,000), and a rare 18th Century Gold Italian Esther Scroll Case which sold for $302,400 (estimate $60/90,000), and was last publicly seen at the 1887 Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
An exceptionally well executed and preserved Miniature Torah Scroll from the 19th century, outfitted with elegant silver-gilt and silk accoutrements, led the sale’s offerings of important books and manuscripts, selling for $252,000 (estimate $80/120,000). Additional highlights included a Hebrew-Arabic Dictionary written by Jerusalem scholar Ali ben Israel in the mid-eleventh century, which achieved $201,600 – over 5x its high estimate (estimate $30/40,000), and a Siddur, or daily prayer book, owned by Rabbi Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad realized $170,100 (estimate $100/200,000).
Bidders also clamored to acquire the legendary family’s artifacts, such as the Magnificent Silk Robe Ezekiel ben Joshua Gubbay (1824-1896) wore upon his marriage to Aziza Sassoon (1839-1897), which soared over 12x its high estimate, selling for $50,400 (left, estimate $2/4,000), and a Gold, Enamel and Jeweled Serpent Necklace circa 1875 that achieved $63,000 – 18x over its high estimate (estimate $2,500/3,500).
Auction Total: $1.7 Million
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston acquired the sale’s top offering of silver – a Pair of Important Early Dutch Parcel-Gilt Silver Torah Finials from Rotterdam in 1649, which sold for $176,400 (estimate $80/120,000). On offer from the United Synagogue, London, the pair stands out for its exceptional rarity, as they are thought to be among the earliest examples of the form.
Paintings in the sale were led by a masterful panel by Isidor Kaufmann, called Am Sabbat (On the Sabbath), which sold for $409,500 (estimate $200/300,000). Showing members of a family devoting themselves to the study of the Talmud on the Sabbath, the painting hasn’t been on the market for nearly 30 years.
The offering of books and manuscripts was led by an Autograph Letter written by Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berdychiv (ca. 1740-1809), which brought $239,400 (estimate $100/200,000). Aside from the historical value of this letter as a record of the philanthropic activity of premodern Eastern European Jewish society, it is also one of only a handful of known surviving documents written and signed by R. Levi Isaac of Berdychiv. As such, it constitutes a material link to the life and legacy of this legendary leader and lover of his people.
JUDAICA AT SOTHEBY’S
Sotheby’s is the only international auction house to offer regular sales of Judaica in New York. Sotheby’s has been entrusted with the most significant collections in this field – including the series of sales for the Sassoon family, Important Hebrew Manuscripts from the Montefiore Endowment, Property of the Delmonico Collection of Important Judaica, and The Valmadonna Trust Library – generating record prices for many significant objects ranging from Hebrew manuscripts to ceremonial objects and textiles
*The current auction record for any Judaica Auction was achieved at Sotheby’s New York in 2015, when Part 1 of the Valmadonna Trust Library achieved $14.9 million. In that same sale, a world auction record for any piece of Judaica was achieved, when Daniel Bomberg’s Babylonian Talmud sold for $9.3 million.