For more than two years conservators and curators have been engaged in preparing the Museum’s diverse works of art for reinstallation in the new gallery building. Among the projects was the examination of the Museum’s collection of Jewish ceremonial objects, identifying those pieces that need conservation, and arranging for their treatment. In the course of this project a fascinating problem was posed by a pair of recently acquired Torah finials, made in Amsterdam in the mid-18th century. But first the back story…
Superlative in craftsmanship, Dutch Judaica of the 17th and 18th centuries testifies to the great flowering of Jewish cultural and intellectual life under the Protestant Dutch Republic. (The Netherlands was the first nation in modern Europe to grant Jews a large measure of economic and religious freedom). Great examples of Dutch Judaica are rare on the art market and many of the objects have suspect provenance due to the rampant looting of synagogues during the Nazi occupation. It was, therefore, an exceptional, not-to-be-missed event when in December 2006 a large collection of very fine Dutch Judaica was offered at auction in New York, consigned by the Jewish Community of Amsterdam. The most desirable objects in this collection were several pairs of exquisite 18th-century Torah finials (or in Hebrew rimmonim). In the Ashkenazi (or Central and Eastern European) tradition, such ornamental finials are used to cap the protruding staves of the Torah scroll when not in use. Often they are hung with bells that tinkle when the Torah is carried in procession. In affluent Jewish communities like Amsterdam the Torah ornaments could be quite sophisticated, reflecting the taste and status of the congregation or individual donor. Dutch rimmonim often take the form of tiered towers, reminiscent of Baroque church architecture.
Our pair was originally made for Amsterdam’s Grote Synagoge (Great Synagogue), the first and most prestigious of four adjacent synagogues built by the city’s Ashkenazi Jewish community. In 1943, during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands, the Great Synagogue was closed and its treasures plundered. Most of the congregation perished in the Holocaust. After the war the synagogue was deconsecrated and later converted into the Jewish Historical Museum (Joods Historisch Museum). Of the ritual objects looted from its treasury only a fraction was ever recovered. After reserving some of these pieces for the museum’s collection, the Amsterdam’s Ashkenazi community sent the “surplus” to auction. The bidding on the floor was robust-this was before the economic downturn. Enthusiasm was fueled not only by the superb quality of the objects but also by their unimpeachable provenance. Still, thanks to the frenzied last-minute fundraising of the Friends of the Judaic Art Gallery, the North Carolina Museum of Art prevailed in our bid for one of the finest pairs of finials.
In the parlance of the auction house, the finials were bought as is, meaning their condition was not perfect. Far from it. Mistreatment–almost certainly by the Nazi looters–was glaringly obvious. The silver shafts were bent, balustrades and other architectural elements were crushed, and a number of the gilt bells were missing. One easily imagines the plunderers of the synagogue carelessly, perhaps maliciously, tossing the finials in a sack or box with the rest of the loot and throwing the whole into the back of a truck. The condition of the finials prompted a lengthy discussion among the curators and conservators. Among the questions raised:
Do we leave the finials in their damaged state, thereby calling attention to their desecration at the hands of the Nazis?
Do we judiciously restore them to their original splendor and thus advance more hopeful story line, one that celebrates the beliefs and aspirations of a once vibrant Jewish community as well as the artistry and dignity of objects dedicated to the divine service?
Is it falsifying history to smooth over the traces of violence? Or is it recovering history to return the finials close to the condition when they were used and cherished? In the end we elected to restore the finials. Weighing the options, we decided that the depredations of the Nazis should not be the principal or even a major aspect of the story these objects tell. We contracted with a highly respected conservator expert in the restoration of fine silver. Over several months he carefully disassembled each finial, straightening the structure, reconstructing damaged parts, fabricating bells and other missing components, and finally reassembling the pieces into a dazzling whole. As may be seen from the photographs, the wounds of war have been mended and the restored finials have reclaimed all of their original ceremonial grandeur.