BOSTON – In the throes of a COVID-19 surge that has once again shuttered the doors of cultural institutions in Greater Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts took center stage in the global world of Judaica.
At a widely watched international Sotheby’s Judaica auction on Dec. 18 that included a treasure trove of objects owned by the legendary Jewish Sassoon family, the museum was the successful bidder for a magnificently decorated, rare 18th-century Torah shield signed by the artist.
It is made of partially gilt silver, enamel, and stones, crafted by Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav, a Galician Jewish silversmith who engraved his signature and the year 1782 on the back.
It is made of partially gilt silver, silver gilded with gold enamel, and stones, crafted by Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav, a Galician Jewish silversmith who engraved his signature and the year 1782 on the back.
The Torah shield was acquired by the MFA for $1,351,000, the leading sale from the Sassoon auction that earned $5 million, with 94 percent of its lots sold, according to Sotheby’s.
The MFA also acquired a pair of rare 17th-century Dutch silver Torah finials and an Italian silver wine cup made around 1830, marked by Israel Vitale, a Jewish silversmith, from a separate Sotheby’s Judaica auction.
The intricately crafted Dutch silver Torah finials – the ornate crowns that top the scroll’s handles – are the earliest known Dutch pair, according to the MFA. They were purchased with funds donated by Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, art collectors who lived for many years on the North Shore, in support of the MFA’s Center for Netherlandish Art.
The Torah shield stands out for its lavish decoration on both its front facing and rear side.
Its small scale – measuring just 8 inches high – indicates it was likely intended for use in a private home, and was likely made for a wealthy Jewish patron in Lemberg (now Lviv, in Ukraine) that was a center of Jewish learning during the period.
On the delicately layered front, the figures of Aaron and Moses flank the crowned Tablets of the Law – the Ten Commandments – with swirls of leaf designs and animals including deer, bears, and an elephant, images that allude to biblical verses praising God.
On the reverse side, vivid, engraved imagery depicts scenes from the biblical life of Isaac and below, a Levite washing the hands of the Kohen in preparation for the priestly blessing. These are likely clues that the patron was named Isaac, and from a family of Levites, according to Sotheby’s.
The Torah shield evokes the carved wooden Torah arks of Eastern Europe, Sotheby’s said in its description.
By the late 1880s, the Torah shield – along with the two others attributed to the artist – was owned by Reuben David Sassoon, the Indian-born Londoner and member of the influential, wealthy Jewish family that traces its centuries-old lineage to Baghdad.
The Torah shield bought by the MFA remained in the Sassoon family collection for some 130 years.
The signed and dated Torah shield represents, “one of the most important pieces of Judaic metalwork to appear at auction in a generation,” Sotheby’s said in a statement.
“I am incredibly excited,” said Simona Di Nepi, the MFA’s Charles and Lynn Schusterman Curator of Judaica.
When the Torah shield is eventually displayed at the MFA, it will be the first time in more than a century that it will be seen in public, she confirmed.
It was last viewed in 1906, loaned from the Sassoon family for an exhibition in London.
The Torah shield “has so much going for it,” Di Nepi told the Journal in an interview on Zoom.
“It has everything a great work of Judaica should have, beautiful quality and craftsmanship; interesting imagery that tells a story; and we know something about the maker.”
The fact that it is fully decorated on both the front and back is among the reasons it is exceptionally important, Di Nepi said.
There’s no question that the Torah shield can be a point of pride for the MFA’s Judaica collection, Di Nepi said.
“Not only is it a Jewish object, but the artist is proudly Jewish, signing his name in Hebrew.”