Ethnic Jewelry on the rise in Israel

A COLLECTION of Jewish silver amulets sporting Hebrew text from Iran and Jerusalem, circa 1900. Both their form and writings were supposed to keep the wearer from harm. (photo credit: Courtesy)
February 4th, 2020 – By Rivkah Lambert Adler

“Jews came from all over the world to this little tiny dot on the map. With every aliyah, we have a wave of that culture bringing their items. We have a huge, huge variety of items,” said Orman.

At 28, Moshe Orman believes he is Israel’s youngest auction house curator. He spends his days dealing with rare items of material culture. Everything he touches in a typical day represents one of a wide range of civilizations that have crossed Israel over the centuries.Orman made aliyah from Baltimore with his family when he was 18. After the army, he worked alongside his father, selling secondhand jewelry at street fairs in Jerusalem. To improve his skills, he studied diamond grading.

In order to acquire merchandise, he traveled to private homes to assess items people wanted to sell. After offering a fair price, he almost always found himself involved in uncomfortable negotiations. After a time, being what he termed “a nomadic Jewish peddler,” Orman was ready for something else. “I was always searching for structure,” he related. “I didn’t enjoy the dynamic of negotiating prices with private buyers and sellers.”His curiosity about the auction business began when he bought an unusual ring from a private seller in Ramat Gan.

Once he did some research, he discovered it was a valuable piece from a specific Russian jewelry maker, worth three times its appraised amount. Three years ago, Orman and partner Shay Cohen opened Alma Auctions, an auction house in central Tel Aviv. Orman said that there are about 10 auction houses in Israel that operate on the same level as Alma Auctions.

Some specialize in Judaica, some in art, and some, like Alma, deal with a more varied range of items. “The field is still undeveloped in Israel,” Orman noted. “We were able to be taken seriously by people in the industry within three years.” Now, instead of arguing with people over pricing, he’s on the same side as the sellers, trying to get the best prices for their items. He finds that much more satisfying.

Orman and Cohen are currently preparing for an international auction of traditional ethnic jewelry and clothing scheduled to open on February 2. All the items are physically in Israel, but the auction itself will be conducted largely online on Israeli, American and European platforms that specialize in collectibles, jewelry and antiques.Although finding buyers for the one-of-a-kind items is obviously the way the auction house makes money, what Orman really loves is researching the provenance of the items that cross his desk.

“I really enjoy what I’m doing. For me, it’s like a hobby in addition to work. If anything, I over-research items. I go with the flow of my interest and where that leads me.”Given the range of items that Alma Auctions represents – there are approximately 500 for the upcoming auction alone – networking with more knowledgeable colleagues is crucial.“We do a lot of outsourcing of knowledge. I’ve developed a network of experts in many different fields, both in Israel and outside of Israel,” Orman explained.

In addition to acquiring auction-worthy items from personal collections, a process that takes months, time is also devoted to researching and cataloging them, as well as translating the descriptions from English into Hebrew.Although not all auctions have themes, the upcoming one is being built around traditional ethnic jewelry and clothing.

Orman explained why Israel is ideal for curating this kind of collection.“Jews came from all over the world to this little tiny dot on the map. With every aliyah, we have a wave of that culture bringing their items. We have a huge, huge variety of items. Russians brought Fabergé enameled cigarette boxes when they left the Soviet Union. The Moroccans came here with their jewelry and clothing, the Yemenites with filigree jewelry, the Persians with rugs and silver and the Europeans with their bronze.” In addition, olim from Uzbekistan brought woven textiles with colorful embroidery known as suzani embroidery.“So many cultures converge here,” he said. The upcoming auction catalogue reflects this. “Ethnic jewelry are the first themed auction we’re doing.”

Orman said. “I started collecting with an idea to do something in the future,” Orman said. “Yossi Benyaminoff was the first antique dealer and collector in Jerusalem. He was into old Jewish amulets. I got in touch with a family member who had some of his items in Israel. These 30 to 40 pieces became the original core of the collection.”This foundation was enhanced when Orman heard about the private collection of ethnic jewelry belonging to Ruti Ofer, widow of Yuli Ofer, Israeli real estate mogul and one of the wealthiest people in Israel.

After a period of negotiating, Orman acquired the collection of 200 items for this auction.Ofer’s contributions include items from Central Asia, Yemen and the Ottoman era.“Her collection consists of both Islamic and Jewish jewelry, with a strong emphasis on Yemenite silversmithing and Bukharan crafts,” the auction catalogue notes. The Ofer collection became the auction’s new core.Items from other well-known Israelis are also being auctioned. A 22-karat gold choker, set with turquoise, that once belonged to Suzi Eban, wife of former diplomat Abba Eban, is part of the collection.

Its opening bid is $3,000.Additionally, Alma is offering former education minister Shulamit Aloni’s collection of Palestinian dresses. Orman noted that these dresses are from Hebron and are finely embroidered. Their sleeve style reflects their origin, and they have been dated to the 1950s.Along with her husband, Eli, the late Elise Davis collected hundreds of kippot, hats and head coverings from Central Asia, North Africa and other regions and cherished them as a form of Jewish folk art. Some of the 19th-century kippot from Davis’s collection are part of the current auction.

The auction catalogue asserts that “many of the items are of museum quality and parallel items that exist in the Metropolitan [Museum of Art in New York], the Islamic Museum and the Israel Museum,” among other prestigious museum collections. With recent pockets of wealth coming into Muslim regions, Islamic art has a renewed allure, both to private collectors and recently opened museums.“Lots of Muslims are starting to collect Palestinian art,” Orman explained.

The auction catalogue elaborates that “many Muslims are trying to understand their heritage and are collecting material influenced by Islam to enrich the narrative of their private collections.”Orman related that when a collector from Ramallah came with her daughter recently to look at some of the different items at Alma, she spoke neither Hebrew nor English. Alma Auction’s typical customer is fascinated by history and art, is middle-aged or older and has discretionary money to spend.

Why would anyone other than collectors be intrigued by the items in this auction? The auction catalogue makes the case that “much of the jewelry we wear and much of the jewelry we see being designed have been directly influenced and inspired by the items represented in this catalogue.” Orman cited two examples – the cast filigree earrings influenced by Yemenite craftsmanship that young Israelis wear, and the bold, large colorful beads displayed in Israeli clothing stores that were influenced by African and Central Asian jewelry. Orman emphasized how much effort Alma Auctions puts into researching and communicating the origins of each of the distinctive items it sells.“It really is interesting to see what comes up in Israel,” he concluded.


Disclaimer: This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.


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