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Winner’s Circle

Esther Ilana Rabi

Owner Gal Wiener is happy to share the stories behind every piece in the Winner’s Auction House showroom in Jerusalem — including the ones that got away

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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The Jerusalem auction house, the biggest in Israel, exists to help the sellers find buyers, and to help match prospective owners with objects of beauty and history that make their hearts sing (Photos: Lior Mizrachi)

The display room at Winner’s Auctions is a veritable hall of treasures There’s a tiny model of a shul’s interior inside a glass bottle, assembled in the 19th century; ancient coins minted during the brief rule of Bar Kochba; a long letter written in the Chofetz Chaim’s hand, asking whether his house in Petach Tikvah is ready for him; and a white robe that turns out to be the Baba Sali’s jalabiya.

Yet one item draws owner Gal Wiener back to it again and again: a six-inch-tall, gemstone-encrusted crown of a miniature sefer Torah. It’s been on his desk for weeks, because he loves to study it.

None of this splendor belongs to Gal, a 42-year-old father of six who spends mornings in kollel. (The name “Winner’s” is a play on his family name, Wiener.) He serves his clients as a middleman, with no personal investment in the exhibits. If he were to buy and sell the pieces passing through his hands, he would benefit by buying low and selling high — but his customers would lose out. The Jerusalem auction house, the biggest in Israel, exists to help the sellers find buyers, and to help match prospective owners with objects of beauty and history that make their hearts sing. (And that also offer good investment value.)

Gal is captivated by the beauty of the pieces that pass through his auction house, by the history of each item, by the way each artifact brings Jewish history to life in a tangible way. And he loves doing the detective work needed to make sure that everything he auctions is authentic. No facsimile or fabrication can replicate the thrill of knowing that the shtender you’re leaning on was used every day for decades by Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz. No reproduction will raise goose bumps the way a genuine, 350-year-old page of Sefer Hasegulos penned by Rav Chaim Vital does.

Winner’s only accepts items that are authentic, valuable, and interesting — about one in ten of the items that are offered to them

Internet auctions abound, but so do counterfeiters and scammers. Anybody with a computer can set up shop in his basement and connect with customers all over the world. But value and authenticity can only be guaranteed by savvy professionals who know which impartial experts to consult. And since Winner’s only accepts items that are authentic, valuable, and interesting — about one in ten of the items that are offered to them — Winner’s Auction saves its clients from having to sift through mountains of chaff.

Objets d’art and possessions of the learned and famous are showy, but there’s real drama in the letters and manuscripts. One letter, in fact, catapulted Winner’s Auctions into global headlines last October. Albert Einstein scribbled a brief missive on a sheet of Tokyo hotel stationery for a bellboy, when he found himself with no change for a tip. It was Einstein’s General Theory of Happiness: “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” A second note he wrote for the boy read: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

“If you’re lucky, those notes will become much more valuable than just a regular tip,” Einstein told him.

Indeed they were. A few months ago, Winner’s Auctions sold the first note for $1.56 million, over 300 times the price it was expected to fetch. The second note sold for $240,000. The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, with a readership of nine million, reported the sale, and Winner’s became internationally known. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 699)

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