toronto | A dapper gentleman of 38, Jonathan Greenstein is proprietor of J. Greenstein & Co. of Brooklyn, which he describes as “the only auction house completely devoted to Jewish ritual objects in America.”
Recently, Greenstein brought his Judaica Roadshow, a Jewish version of the popular “Antiques Roadshow” television program, to Toronto.
Sitting earlier this month at the front of an audience of about 100 at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Synagogue, Greenstein rapidly and entertainingly pronounced judgment on the parade of ritual and cultural objects brought his way.
A woman brought forward a silver menorah and he declared its provenance at a glance: It was made in Poland during the art deco period, about 1910 to 1935. Appraising the condition of the piece, he turned it over to inspect the maker’s tiny silver marks on the underside and announced its value at $900.
He valued a “Shabbos knife” made in Upper Bohemia about 100 years ago at $100. But he didn’t give a dollar estimate for a “shochet’s knife” because it probably wouldn’t fetch anything at auction.
He warned that an object’s highest value usually resides in its connection to family members, and that it would be a shame if — as too often happens — there is no one left in a family who can appreciate it. “I’ve had people sell me things and tell me that their grandparents were Jewish and they weren’t, and these things were completely meaningless to them,” he laments.
Greenstein fell into his profession at 13 when he began working in an antique store. “The owner, who wasn’t Jewish, allowed me to buy all the Jewish silver that came in, to keep it from being melted down for its scrap value,” he explains.
He’s spent the last quarter century buying, appraising, consulting and trading in antique and rare Judaica.
He is pleased and excited to see the afternoon’s most rare, interesting and valuable object.
“This is a true miniature Torah — it’s under four inches” in height “in the parchment,” he explains. He described it as being Russian and in excellent condition.
In centuries past, European rabbis who didn’t have space for full-sized scrolls often kept miniature scrolls like this one.
The scroll could command $20,000 to $30,000 at auction if an expert scribe certifies it as being without defect, he said; otherwise it would go for $7,000 to $8,000.
The owner, whose great-grandfather penned the scroll, clearly has no intention of parting with it. Like other possessors of such family treasures, she brought it before Greenstein merely to satisfy her long-held curiosity.
If the miniature Torah’s owner was pleasantly surprised, others at the roadshow — who generally paid either $18 or $45 to participate — may have felt some disappointment when Greenstein politely declined to attach an estimate of what their uncertain treasures might fetch at auction.
“It’s very pretty and an authentic piece of Judaica, but of no monetary value,” Greenstein said, regarding a round red needlepoint matzah cover dating from 1924.
A shofar, between 150 and 200 years old, might fetch “about $700 or $800 or perhaps as much as $1,500,” he declares. “This shofar had a different purpose. It was blown in the synagogue for a ‘cherem’ — an excommunication during which an errant congregant was thrown out of the community.”
Greenstein wishes that a certain class of antiquities dealer might also be excommunicated. He calls them the bane of the profession, saying they come from Israel to America laden with questionable goods.
“This is a typical thing that happens with collectors,” he says. “They start building collections of fakes, someone will enlighten them that they’re buying fakes or doctored items, and they’ll get so turned off that they’ll stop collecting. That’s how we lose a lot of collectors.”