Antiques are the new rage in reality television. From Pawnstars to Storage Wars, people are looking to profit from hidden treasures, some that they have kept and preserved for years, others that they discover in abandoned storage containers or old homes, as a French family recently discovered a $137 million Caravaggio in their attic when they had to repair a leak.
The fascination with hidden value and appreciation is far from a new phenomenon. Viewers have been fascinated by the often inconspicuous objects that are worth far more than initially suspected. Add that to the massive popularity of films like Indiana Jones and National Treasure, and the nation’s sense of and desire for adventure is readily apparent.
Antiques are the new gold rush, affording people with vast riches if they search hard enough and are able to recognize opportunity when it appears. Essentially, one must be able to identify the diamond in the rough, even when it might not look like a diamond.
There is a reason why we’re not all making money that way. Some people are better at treasure hunting than others. As we reflect on the recent Passover holiday, consider what the Jews might have found in the sands of the desert had they had a metal detector or an antique expert?
Jonathan Greenstein is one of those rare talents who sees the beauty before anyone else knows it is there. He discovered this passion as a 14 year old, working in an antique shop after school. He was instantly hooked on the constant chase and began seeking out flea markets in search of valuable pieces. His collection grew rapidly and continues to grow to this day.
As his collection expanded, Greenstein discovered a second passion, the art of the auction. Greenstein gained acclaim as an expert of Jewish ritual artifacts, also known as Judaica, and has used his knowledge of valuations to identify pieces appropriate for auctioning.
Today Greenstein owns J. Greenstein & Co., the only Judaica-focused auction house in the United States, as well as a home health care operation. The specialized focus of the auction house has attracted Jewish collectors and families from across the world to contact Greenstein in the hopes that he will recognize value in their Judaica and offer to auction off the pieces.
What makes Judaica unique as a sub-section of antiques is that the constant movement and persecution of Jewish people resulted in the majority of Jewish art and artifacts being stolen and destroyed. Thus, Jewish families assign high sentimental value to the Judaica that their relatives were able to keep, symbolic of the struggle that previous generations of Jews to find a safe home to practice their religion.
The diaspora of the Jewish people makes the search even more compelling for Greenstein. He enjoys diving into emails of Jews worldwide, identifying potential treasures, and traveling to verify the rarity and value of a piece. Greenstein has never considered himself an appraiser, but rather focuses on the stories behind pieces to understand their value to history. Learning about the historical significance of a piece is an additional prize, since the history of most pieces has been lost to time.
Always eager to share the stories behind pieces, from the physical features to the historical context in which it was created, Jonathan takes pride in his collections. In his upcoming May 17th auction taking place at his Cedarhurst gallery, Greenstein will be auctioning pieces from Doctor Stephen Oppenheimer, former Optometrist to the stars who has built an impressive collection over the years. His is a 1900s era Dutch silver spice box in the shape of a peacock. Another treasure, a monumental silver presentation urn, was found in an attic and had belonged to Rabbi Henri Loeb, the chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Belgium in the Nineteenth Century; it carries an estimated value of $60,000-$80,000.
Jonathan has on display a priceless Passover Compendium. Based on the rare structure of the piece, Greenstein suggested that the piece is from Ruzhin-Sadigura Chassidic dynasty. The Ruzhin-Sadigura community consisted of tens of thousands of Chassidic Jews living in Sadigura, Austria in the mid-1800s. The Sadigura Rebbe was known for both his wisdom and extravagance, as indicated in the panache and flair of the compendium. The compendium is not only beautiful, but also tailor made for a Passover Seder, with built-in compartments for matzah and a full Seder plate design.
Greenstein bought the compendium relatively inexpensively, taking advantage of a drastic undervaluation, but the estimates he has now received is overwhelming.
Only a tried and true Judaica expert would have understood the value and significance of such a piece, especially one that is unrecognizable compared to today’s Passover Judaica styles. I’ll have to get Greenstein to look at my grandmother’s pot from Galicia.
As a disclaimer, Jonathan and I have known each other since our teenage years, digging for different kinds memories in our carefree Catskill Mountain playground.
By Juda Engelmayer
Juda Engelmayer is a Senior Vice President at 5W Public Relations.