By Rochelle Maruch Miller
For Jonathan Greenstein, the menorah has significance beyond the ceremonial: it can also be a highly valued collectible. As founder of the J Greenstein luxury auction house, he is one of the country’s foremost Judaica collectors and has been privately catering to connoisseurs of the Jewish arts for the past decade. Greenstein has sold some of his most valuable possessions, including a rare and particularly elaborate menorah worth $100,000, made in Ukraine in the 18th century and a spice box valued at $337,000. These objects not only have financial value but are great visuals. Including timeless gifts and, quite often, family heirlooms that are cultural and historical artifacts, Greenstein’s renowned collection displays a cross-culture of artistic masterpieces and authentic rare antiques.
In his most recent auction, Greenstein sold more than $820,000 worth of Judaica. He also owns J Greenstein & Company in Cedarhurst, where he has displays of magnificent menorahs, Kiddush cups, silver Torah ornaments, paintings, and much more, including sifrei Torah that have never before been seen in public.
He says prices have easily doubled in the last decade as demand for such items have soared. “It’s all about rarity and aesthetics,” says Greenstein. “If it’s gorgeous, it will sell. If it’s old, it will sell.”
One of the factors that determine the high prices of these items is their rarity. Fleeing their homes during the Nazi era, Jews had to abandon their homes without their cherished possessions, including Kiddush cups and menorahs that had been treasured family traditions, passed down from generation to generation. Many of these were melted down into silver.
But the high prices are not exclusive to pre-war Judaica masterpieces. Menorahs, Kiddush cups, and spice boxes designed by contemporary artists can command a four-figure price.
In an article for the Huffington Post, Jonathan Greenstein wrote, “Antique Judaica is the micro-niche in the art and antique world. With 15 million Jews in the world, believe it or not, there are only about 700 active collectors.”
For over a decade, Jonathan Greenstein has been attracting clients from all over the world and is depended upon for his authenticity by the biggest names in Judaica collecting. In this interview with the 5TJT, Jonathan discusses Judaica as a good investment, as well as his passion for Judaica.
RMM: How did you discover your passion for Judaica?
JG: When I was fourteen, I took a part-time job in an antique store on Kings Highway, called the Gold Bug. Silver was at an all-time high, so everyone was selling their Judaica at melt-value. I worked out a deal with the owner that allowed me to keep the Judaica in lieu of a salary. A collector was born! While most kids my age were following sports events, rock groups, or girls, I was going to flea markets, estate sales, and antique shows looking for Judaica.
RMM: How did you hone your talent?
JG: By seeing what came out of estates firsthand. There is no school or class you can take on how to differentiate fakes and frauds from the real thing. Only years of experience allows for that. I’ve been playing with Kiddush cups since I was fourteen.
RMM: Jonathan, how did you establish your world-renowned auction house?
JG: In 2002, I was asked by Rabbi Shmuel Butman of Chabad to chair a charity auction, and to actually be the auctioneer for the event, which was held at the Park East Synagogue. I put the sale together, from getting the pieces to making a catalogue. It was successful. I became licensed and did my own auction shortly thereafter.
RMM: What makes antique, quality Judaica a wise option for the Jewish investor?
JG: Because not only does it increase in value over the years, but you also get to look at and enjoy the decorative aspects while time passes. Try to decorate your house with a stock certificate from Apple! A menorah is a lot more attractive.
RMM: What factors determine the value of Judaica?
JG: Three things: Age, aesthetics, and rarity. If a certain style of menorah appears at auctions often, there is very little desire for it. The older, bigger, shmaltzier an authentic piece is, the more it is worth.
RMM: What are the unique features of the $100,000 menorah?
JG: This is a very rare menorah. It was made in Poland in 1780 and sold in Sotheby’s in 1981 for $25,000. It was sold by me last month for $100,000. Here is a catalogue description: A rare and important Chanukah lamp. Ukraine. 18th Century. On rectangular base with eight sliding drawers, each crafted in the form of a winged griffon. The back plate chased with floral design, a ram’s head and two lions flanking an urn. This lamp is featured in Jay Weinstein’s A Collector’s Guide to Judaica, where he allocates a full page to its picture.
RMM: Jonathan, while we are discussing Judaica masterpieces, what is the story behind the $337,000 spice box?
JG: That was the highest number paid for a spice box in public auction ever. We hold the record. We bought it in a small auction house. Had that been in Sotheby’s or by our sale, it would have gone for half a million, maybe more. It was crafted in 1717 in Lemberg and formerly in the collection of the Jewish Heritage Society of London. And we paid $337,000 for it.
RMM: What is your greatest source of pride?
JG: Our reputation for accuracy and honesty. It took me 30+ years to be acknowledged as the world’s expert in antique Judaica. I enjoy that. I can pick out fakes and forgeries in other auctions that are almost laughable.
RMM: What message would you like to convey to our readers?
JG: Collect and invest in Judaica antiques and art, but don’t do it without an expert holding your hand. You wouldn’t try to read an X-ray by yourself. This is equally complicated.
J Greenstein and Company is located at 417 Central Avenue in Cedarhurst. For further information, call 516-295-2931 or visit www.jgreenstein.com.