Jonathan Greenstein considers himself "The Indiana Jones of Judaica." His adventures in tracking down valuable antiques have unearthed such treasures as a $100,000 menorah and a spice box worth $500,000, and a Torah shield that the owner thought might be worth $50, but turned out to be valued at more than half a million dollars.
Greenstein is the owner of the only auction house in the country devoted solely to the sale of Jewish ritual objects. He says he gets 25 to 50 emails every week from people who want to know if their grandmother's menorah or Kiddush cup is valuable.
Many times, families assume that the only value their memorabilia has is sentimental. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"Recently a woman said she has two menorahs, two Kiddush cups, and a spice box," he says. "One of the menorahs came from Poland 200 years ago and is worth at least $50,000."
The Teenage Prince of Passover
Greenstein sells many items at J. Greenstein & Co., his antique shop and auction house in Cedarhurst, N.Y. But some treasures he buys for his own extensive personal collection of Judaica.
He started collecting at age 14. That's when Greenstein was thrown out of a private Jewish school in Brooklyn, he thinks because of an undiagnosed case of ADHD. Since his new school finished at 1 p.m. every day, he started working in an antique shop in the afternoons and got hooked on the chase for treasures.
"The owner of the antique store would pay me in Kiddush cups," Greenstein says. He started trolling flea markets to add to his Judaica collection, buying items using his earnings from his other job as a bar mitzvah waiter. "Eventually I had boxes of stuff that I was buying and selling."
Out of this early passion for Jewish artifacts the auction business was born, and Greenstein's collection continues to grow. He bought his most recent purchase for the gallery, a 19th-century German silver-winged-hydra-form Hanukkah lamp, from the Sotheby's Michael Steinhardt collection auction for $31,250. He estimates its value at $150,000 to $200,000.
Also recently added to his gallery collection is a silver filigree spice container made in Poland in the 18th century that was part of an auction sale of ceremonial objects from the collection of the Jewish Historical Society of England. Greenstein bought the spice box, which had once been on display in the Jewish Museum of London, for a record-setting price of $337,000.
A Judaica Antiques Roadshow
"The Indiana Jones of Judaica" isn't the only nickname Greenstein has picked up over time. He's also been called "The Menorah Man" and "The Prince of Passover."
In addition to collecting and auctioning Judaica, Greenstein also owns a home health-care business. But it's the auction business he loves the most. He also writes columns about the subject for several magazines and stars in the new Jewish Channel TV program Jewish Gilt, a Judaica version of Antiques Roadshow.
"It would be tough to make a living just from the auction business," says Greenstein. "We make approximately $1.3 million in sales per year and I work on a 20 percent commission basis, but there are a lot of expenses to keep it running." (Greenstein willingly estimates the value of objects for people who contact him through his website.)
Greenstein travels throughout the U.S. and the world to track down unusual items. "About three years ago I called my son and asked him if he wanted pizza for dinner," says Greenstein. "When I got home, I told him we were [going to be] eating pizza at our favorite restaurant in Miami. We went straight to JFK and got on JetBlue because I had received an email from a guy whose father had been the former chief rabbi of Prague. He had a Torah shield he wanted me to look at. I suspected it was something special, so I wanted to see it in person. He thought it might be worth $50, so when I told him it was worth about $6,000, his head spun around like that girl in The Exorcist."
The search for surviving Jewish treasures
Greenstein says Judaica is so rare because during World War II and the Holocaust, the Germans systematically destroyed not only the Jewish people, but also their art.
"Everything was stolen from people's homes all over Europe and from the temples," he says. "Anything that was silver or any other metal was melted for scrap metal."
Jewish ritual items can be found in the U.S. in families with relatives who came to this country during the great Jewish immigration years, between the 1880s and the 1940s. Those immigrants brought everything with them, such as menorahs, silver spice boxes, and Kiddush cups that had been in their families for generations, says Greenstein.
He says some of these pieces are valuable, but since many immigrants were poor, most of the objects are made of bronze rather than silver. But even a moderate collectible item can be worth $3,000 to $5,000.
More commonly, Greenstein says he sees Kiddush cups worth $1,000 or so, although some that are inscribed and were made before World War II are worth as much as $50,000 to $75,000. "The more aesthetically pleasing anything is, the larger it is, and the rarer it is, the more valuable it is," says Greenstein.
While the supply of these items is very limited, there is still much of it to be unearthed. "There are over six million Jews in America plus countless others who have Jewish relatives," says Greenstein. "There are more Jewish treasures in the apartments in New York, Los Angeles, South Florida, and Cincinnati than in any museum in the world.... People may not realize they could be sitting on a goldmine."
Protect your Jewish treasures
While Greenstein's not in the appraisal business, his decades of experience have given him the eye to recognize an object's historical and financial worth. If you've got a Kiddush cup in your closet, Greenstein says you can email him to ask about its potential value.
If it turns out to be a rare or particularly valuable object, Greenstein recommends getting a professional appraisal and then making sure it is properly insured. (That goes for any antique you keep in your home.) If the item is lost, damaged, or stolen, proper insurance can at least cover the financial loss, though not the sentimental one.
Once you have a professional appraisal, check your homeowner's insurance policy to see whether you are adequately covered. Most insurance policies require art, antiques, and collectibles to have a separate endorsement for extra insurance coverage in case the item is stolen or damaged. The standard insurance policy covers items for theft or damage but not for loss, so that's another reason to get an extra endorsement or rider on your policy.
Keep in mind that home insurance policies typically limit your reimbursement for a claim to $1,000 or $2,000 per item, which varies according to the company and your policy.
Don't assume your grandmother's seder plate is worthless. Get it out of storage, get an appraisal, and then decide if you want to sell your treasure or keep it. In either case, make sure you have it insured while it's in your hands.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated the amount the Torah shield was appraised for, and referred to certain items as being purchased for Greenstein's personal collection rather than for the gallery. The Fool regrets the error.