Madoff Victims Flood Judaica Market With Treasures

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madoff-judaicaCrains New York reports:
Sometime in January, the e-mails started coming more frequently, describing an 18th-century Polish silver candelabra here, an Italian bronze Chanukah there.
Jonathan Greenstein, chairman of auction house J. Greenstein & Co., was receiving two or three e-mails a week from people suddenly interested in selling antique Jewish heirlooms. He typically gets two or three a month at his Queens-based company, which specializes in the authentication and consignment of antique Judaica.By the time he received word of a set of silver cups engraved with Hebrew letters indicating that they were smelted from coins given out by a long-dead grand rabbi, Mr. Greenstein suspected greater forces were at work. Clients soon confirmed the culprit: Bernard Madoff.

Auction houses are reporting a sharp increase in the number of antique Jewish artifacts being offered for spring auctions. Dealers who specialize in this niche say that the amount and quality of newly available items blows away offerings from past auction seasons.

“The Italian bronze menorah is magnificent,” says Mr. Greenstein. “I knew in my heart that this guy wanted to hand it down to his son and grandchildren.” Instead, it’s listed in the June catalog.

Investments of all kinds have had a disappointing run lately, aside from the Madoff catastrophe. But while the economy at large has played a role in the flood of antiquities, many point to one definite villain.

“[Mr. Madoff’s] reach of destruction was so unbelievable,” says Mr. Greenstein. “People are parting with things you know they wouldn’t necessarily part with. It’s heartbreaking.”

J. Greenstein’s June auction already has more than 200 lots of antique Judaica, while its more typical auction size is about 130 lots.

The Schindler family consigned several items to Mr. Greenstein. The artifacts, with an estimated value exceeding $30,000, include a gilded silver and diamond Torah pointer crafted in the 1780s.

Manhattan’s kestenbaum & co., which specializes in rare manuscripts and Judaica, will have an auction on April 2 with a robust 328 lots.

The most anticipated auction item at Kestenbaum is a book called the Prague Haggadah. It’s one of five surviving books from a 1526 woodcut printing that’s believed to be the first illuminated Jewish text printed in central Europe after the Jews were expelled from Spain. The last time a Prague Haggadah became available, more than a dozen years ago, it fetched $277,500 at Sotheby’s in New York. The book’s estimated value in the current market: $120,000 to $150,000.

Mr. Madoff’s fraud also created a group of victims once removed, those who didn’t invest in any Madoff-related funds but whose livelihoods are tied to those who did.

Abraham Kugielsky is the only one of 11 siblings to go into the 35-year-old family business: private sales of Jewish and Hebrew art and religious artifacts. Business has been crushingly slow lately, which he attributes to both the economy and the Madoff effect: His clientele would have included many Madoff investors.

“These collectors have been hurt financially, and they’re not really buying anything unless it’s very rare and they just can’t pass on it,” he says.

As a result, Mr. Kugielsky finds himself reaching into his family’s private collection for special items in order to raise money. “There’s this 19th-century German menorah that I really didn’t think I was going to sell, but sometimes you have no choice.”

Last summer, the menorah would have sold for as much as $6,000, he estimates. Now, with so much antique Judaica on the market, he’ll feel lucky to get $4,000.

It’s a cruel juxtaposition. Even as FBI investigators inventory the Madoff family’s jewelry, art and antiques, many Madoff clients are doing the same: dusting off family heirlooms and assessing their collections.

“The market is a lot more challenging now,” says Mr. Kugielsky. “One thing’s for sure: If anyone is able to buy, now is a great time. Prices are being kept fair and low.”

{Crains NY/ Newscenter}


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