Building an art collection is not rocket science. At least, it’s not science. You don’t just identify what you want and then go out and get it. Chances are, when you look for a specific thing, you will not find it—until you stop looking for it. I’m a great believer in serendipity, keeping oneself open to all possibilities so that when something unsought but irresistible shows up one can carpe diem—seize the day.
The Museum really seized the day—April 29 to be exact—when we entered the fray of the largest auction of Jewish ceremonial art in decades, the sale of the Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection at Sotheby’s, New York (video: A Treasured Legacy). A highly successful hedge fund manager, Michael Steinhardt is one of the most innovative and generous philanthropists of Jewish causes. He is also a famous contrarian: in 2011 he delivered the NCMA’s annual Kanof Lecture on the topic: “Reflections of a Judaica Collector Who Is Both an Atheist and Deeply Jewish.”
Collecting Judaica as part of their general interest in Jewish culture, Steinhardt and his wife, Judy, eventually built one of the largest private collections of its type in the world. The collection ranged in time from biblical antiquity to the present and included many rare and extraordinary items, chief among them a beautifully illuminated 15th-century Italian manuscript of the Mishneh Torah.
In January Sotheby’s announced the sale of the Steinhardt collection. Though our coffer—the Judaic Art Fund—was low, we could not afford to pass up this unexpected opportunity. Trust in serendipity! While Sotheby’s was still cataloguing the nearly 400 lots in the sale, I arranged to preview the entire sale with Gabriel Goldstein, our consulting curator of Judaica. We initially identified 11 pieces of highest interest for the Museum’s Judaic Art Gallery. We looked for objects that were beautifully designed and crafted and that made a clear statement of their purpose. And since art is fundamentally about the stories we tell, we also looked for pieces that would add the most to the evolving narrative of our Judaic art collection. Further research and discussions with Sotheby’s experts and other scholars reduced our wish list to six pieces. Emergency fund-raising commenced through the Friends of the Judaic Art Gallery. By April 29 we had secured sufficient contributions and pledges to bid competitively for five of the six targeted lots. We set maximum limits for each bid.
Sotheby’s promotion of this auction was over-the-top. In an effort to stir global interest, the highlights of the collection traveled to Europe, Russia, and Israel. A week prior to the sale, Sotheby’s presented the whole collection in a dramatic, museum-worthy exhibition at its Manhattan headquarters (video).
As with previous auctions, we arranged to do the bidding over speaker phone from my office. A representative from Sotheby’s was at the other end of the phone, and in the background you could hear the auctioneer coaxing bids from the room, the phone bank, and the Internet. The sale was long, divided into morning and afternoon sessions. We invited major contributors to sit in while their lots were cried. Some museum staff joined us. Even from a distance, you couldn’t help but feel the electrostatic thrill of an art auction. And when our lots came up, no one breathed.
“Fifty. You have fifty thousand against you. Do you want to bid sixty?”
“Sixty. There’s seventy on the floor. Do you want to bid eighty? Eighty-five?”
Inevitably, we lost several pieces we really wanted. A sumptuous Torah Crown from mid-18th-century Venice would have given us our first great piece of Italian synagogue silver. Alas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought it for $857,000. We also lost several smaller things when the bidding vaulted past our limits. However, there was little time for regrets. Another lot was coming up.
By late afternoon, we had won three lots against strong international competition. We prevailed because we simply wanted these pieces more than anyone else and we were fortunate to have lined up donors willing to stake us all the way. As I write the pieces are still in New York, waiting to be shipped to Raleigh. They will go on view in late October. I’ll write more about them in the fall.