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Upping the Ante

Barbara Bensoussan

Hidden away on the 12th floor of a narrow building onWest 30th StreetinManhattan, Kestenbaum & Company is the type of place you’d walk right by if you weren’t in the know. But once you step out of the elevator and are buzzed in through a nondescript door, you enter to find … a Judaica lover’s cave of treasures.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

speechWell, it’s not exactly a cave, but rather a large, bright display room, with offices in the back. Kestenbaum & Company is the only auction house in Americaspecializing exclusively in Judaica, which denotes rare books and manuscripts, art, and ceremonial objects. The day before the most recent auction, the front room is lined with glass cases filled with antique silver Kiddush cups, Torah crowns, esrog holders, megillos in carved cases, pushkes, and Torah pointers.

Large, upright panels display a selection of artwork and photography from the last century, ranging from political posters to sentimental portraits of Torah scholars to Hirschfeld pen-and-ink renderings of Charlie Chaplin and, l’havdil, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. A table holds folios of prints by artist such as Reuven Rubin, Mordecai Ardon, and Isidor Kaufman.

People drift in and out to view the merchandise: a tall, gray-haired but vigorous Israeli in shorts and sandals; a man in a polo shirt and yarmulke placing bids for his father inCalifornia; a couple of women with shopping bags fromHerald Square. Kestenbaum employees Jackie Insel and Abby Meyer are busy with last-minute auction details, while a couple of interns man the display cases, ready to allow prospective buyers to see and even handle the objects. While most bear the patina of age and the dignity of ritual use, a few are whimsical: a pair of sugar and cream holders shaped like rotund rabbis in toques and talleisim, a tin “piggy bank” issued by Bank Leumi in the early days of the State of Israel, shaped like Noah’s Ark; a pipe with a miniature painting of a rabbi and a Hebrew inscription.

A glossy catalog shows everything that will be offered tomorrow for sale, with suggested prices ranging from $100 to $40,000. Why would one item fetch thousands while another just a few hundred?

Daniel Kestenbaum, who runs his auction four times a year, explains the difference. “Of course we’re high-end; we’re not a secondhand bookseller. We sell antiquarian and rare books, but just because a Chumash or siddur dates back to the 18th or 19th century doesn’t make it valuable from a collector’s perspective, not unless it’s somehow exotic, or comes from a famous chassidic town, or is marked up by a gadol. A Mishnah Berurah from the 20th century wouldn’t interest us at all, unless there were margin notes written by the Chofetz Chaim.”

Each auction is a risk — the house could be packed, or no one could show. But generally speaking, people show up and the company sells between 80 to 90 percent of the objects, on a standard commission basis (the seller and the buyer each pay a percentage of the selling price to the auction house).

Where do all these objects come from? “Death, debt, and divorce,” offers Jackie Insel, Kestenbaum’s operations manager and auction organizer. “People sell off collections when the money is more necessary to them than the item.”

“We receive items from dozens of sources,” Kestenbaum says. “It could be the stereotypical old lady’s attic or a museum changing its collection. Often it’s a family yerushah, where there’s a collection of seforim and, sadly enough, the kids aren’t interested in keeping them — they’ll select a few and sell the rest. We’ll look through them in bulk and pick out the rarities.


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