Not Your Mother’s Judaica: Tips from Rachael Goldman

Rachael Goldman holds a Ph.D. in Ancient History and Renaissance History from the City University of New York-Graduate Center. Her book on Color-Terms in Ancient Rome was published by Gorgias Press in 2013. She has been a member of the Appraisers Association of America (AAA) since 2002. A scholar in Jewish History, Rachael has studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jewish Art and Visual Culture Progam. Rachael is the Judaica Consultant for Bonhams auction house, and managed their first Judaica Auction in New York in December 2013. She has lectured at Rutgers University and New York University and in cities across the US. She divides her time between New York and New Jersey.

What are some notable discoveries that have been made recently in your area of expertise?

Let’s go with discoveries and milestones!

– sketches and a complete archive from the 1940-1960 opening of the Israel Museum

– a brit milah compendium dated to 1793-1794!

– wood carvings from Lower East and North Eastern US synagogues made by carousel carvers, one sold at auction for $31,000

– a Zionist flag used by the 1st Zionist Organization in the US sold for $5,000

As for antiquities, I found a treasure trove of bucchero vessels that were dug up in Italy that date back to the Etruscan period (700 BCE-200 BCE). Fantastic!

What are your top tips for an aspiring collector in your area of expertise?

Just because it bears a Jewish star does not make it Judaica! Judaica applies to a wide array of artistic, historical, and cultural artifacts. This includes items from Israel to pop culture items that are particularly cool and valuable. More recently there has been considerable interest in Israeli-made items from the 1930s and 1940s. Holocaust related items generally belong in museums. Zionist items are also considered Judaica. It’s helpful to think beyond a strictly religious context when exploring Judaica.

What should a collector ask to identify an item and avoid common pitfalls?

Ask for the provenance of the piece, period. Match up pieces with items found in Jewish Museums before you buy. And lastly, ask if the piece came from a Holocaust trove or a Holocaust survivor.

What questions should a collector ask to determine the fair sale price of an item?

This is always a challenging question. I rely on marketplace comparables and the tier system. There is always a high, middle and low marketplace for Judaica.

However, the history and origin of each piece is particularly important. There are many contributing factors that must be considered on a case-by-case basis. I would recommend doing as much research as possible. A comprehensive understanding of the object in question will help you determine if it’s fairly priced.

What is selling best in today’s market (which particular makers/styles)?

Judaica is a tricky field as there are folks who buy things that were not intended to be Judaica. A silver piece that started off innocently as a tea caddy or cruet is often repurposed, becoming an ethrog box or spice box.

In April 2013, Sotheby’s auctioned the Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection with tremendous success. The record-breaking sale fetched over $8.5 million, well over the presale estimate. Any outstanding circumstances aside, the significance of this monumental sale is clear! Especially precious and historically significant objects were purchased by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

What other questions do people ask you most frequently in your area of expertise?

‘How do you know how to appraise pieces of Judaica?’ ‘How did you get that job?’

I explain that I am academic who began her career in research. I worked as an intern at Sotheby’s on one of the first Judaica sales in 2000 and learned the trade. My background in Judaica really began when I was in a yeshiva high school where I regularly saw these pieces.