A conversation with Daniel Kestenbaum

A conversation with Daniel Kestenbaum

Daniel Kestenbaum, a Bergenfield resident, auctions fine Judaica at his Manhattan gallery.

Every three months, Bergenfield resident Daniel Kestenbaum holds an auction of Western and Oriental books, manuscripts, and fine Judaica at his Manhattan gallery.

One of few such specialists in the world, Kestenbaum & Company has become well-known to Judaica collectors, curators, and dealers. But its founder is perhaps less well-known at home. Following his recent spring auction – featuring items such as a 1488 Torah commentary that sold for $200,000 – Kestenbaum, 47, talked with The Jewish Standard about his work.

J.S.: What items fit the category of Judaica?

D.K.: “Judaica” has become a catch-all phrase to encompass anything to do with Jewish culture including autographs, art, books, and [ritual] silver items. It used to be twinned with “Hebraica,” which referred specifically to Hebrew books, while “Judaica” referred to Jewish books written in other languages. I focus on antiquarian (not second-hand) print items and early 19th- and 20th-century Jewish art.

J.S.: How did you get into the field?

D.K.: Ever since I was a kid in London, I loved history. I was very independent-minded and spent a lot of time in libraries. At 16, I came across an old-time Jewish book-dealer, a Vizhnitz chasid with a white beard. He owned two houses – he lived in one and the other was filled with books, each room a different subject area. He took a shine to me, and in the evenings and Sundays I would hang out there and ask him about the books.

I dropped out of school at 17. For a few years I informally learned in yeshivot and in university libraries, and I also worked for this dealer. This was at a time when Judaica started to become better known; Christie’s and Sotheby’s started getting into it.

I came to New York on my employer’s behalf for auctions, and in 1986 Swann Galleries asked me to move to New York to establish a Hebrew book department. I also opened a branch for them in Jerusalem, and then in 1992 I went to work for the Bloomsbury auction house in London. When I was ready to become independent three years later, I felt the New York area was the best place to do it.

J.S.: What were some of the items in your latest auction?

D.K.: Rare 15th- to 18th-century books from a private collection in London, the most prominent being an exceptional Abraham ibn Ezra incunable dated 1488. There was a 1526 Prague Haggadah from the estate of a Swiss family, and a large selection of manuscripts from the rare-book room of a college library.

The American Judaica section included Mordecai Manuel Noah’s “The Fortress of Sorrento: A Petit Historical Drama,” from New York, 1808, the first play written by a Jew in the United States of America. In the ceremonial art section was the Statue of Liberty Menorah designed by Manfred Anson [of Bergenfield] in honor of the statue’s centennial in 1986.

You can see all the item details in our catalogue, online at kestenbaum.net.

J.S.: What is an incunable?

D.K.: These are books printed in the half-century following the 1450 publication of the Gutenberg Bible. There were something like 120 Hebrew titles printed during that time, although how many copies of each is not known. The pristine internal condition of this particular copy of ibn Ezra’s peirush [Torah commentary], from Naples, allowed it to be sold at a substantial premium. Six months ago, another copy missing a page appeared in auction at Sotheby’s and sold for $40,000. My copy was extraordinarily perfect and was bought by a U.S. collector for $200,000.

J.S.: How do you acquire such items?

D.K.: Owners consign material to me and I sell it on their behalf and earn a commission from the sale. Items are from any number of sources, rarely including little old ladies who find things in their attic, but more commonly from the active and intense circuit of book dealers, collectors, university libraries, and museums. Someone in Greek books might come across a Jewish book and sell it through me because I have the right contacts.

The collectors who are buying usually don’t care where the items are coming from, but occasionally you’ll have two copies of a book – one from a dealer and another from the library of someone of great note, such as the Bostoner rebbe. There will be a bit of a premium on the latter copy.

J.S.: Has the economic downturn affected bidding?

D.K.: Yes. In flusher times, for example, the ibn Ezra peirush would have commanded double. Some [potential buyers] simply don’t have the money any longer, or feel it’s not the most prudent time to be spending even if they have it.

But because our auctions are based on tradition rather than fashion, the market remains consistent even if there is less competitive bidding. On the whole, Judaica is not an area where people are buying to make investments, as with contemporary art. People focused on this area will find a way to prioritize to buy an item they really want.

I knew that the Prague Haggadah, which had a pre-auction estimate of $120,000 to150,000, would find its buyer. It was sold to a collector in Israel for the lower price.

J.S.: Tell us about your family. Are they interested in Judaica as well?

D.K.: I have a wife, Hadassah, and seven children ranging in age from 17 to 8. I’ve wanted to encourage the children’s interest as they’ve gotten older. Every other week I bring home something I found to show them over Shabbos. One is very taken by miniature books. Sometimes they come to help with an exhibition.

I’ve also had boys from TABC [Torah Academy of Bergen County] interning here, or graduates from Ma’ayanot [Yeshiva High School for Girls] helping out at the auctions. Next month, the honors senior class from Yeshiva of Flatbush is coming to learn about how to do research. I’m very open to doing these kinds of things. High school and college students gain quite a lot from seeing this sort of material.

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