The art of collecting Jewish art
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The art of collecting Jewish art

Navigating the Jewish art market

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Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Often, the masterpieces of one generation are forgotten by the next. Those collecting do so for a variety of reasons, including investment, decoration, aesthetics, preserving history and sentimentality.

For generations, it seemed that almost every Jewish home had a collection of “Jewish art” proudly on display — and the production of the genre only increased in the 1980s. While the artists and medium varied, there were a few themes that could reliably be expected: dancing rabbis and Jerusalem, to name a few.

The buyers of this contemporary artwork purchased it because it struck a chord emotionally. Believing that the art would increase in value and that their children would be happy to inherit these new “classics,” sentimental buyers snapped up this commercial artwork at galleries in America and Israel.

Sadly, such works haven’t retained their value, and millennials, preferring to live unencumbered by “things,” aren’t interested in inheriting this art from their parents.

There are several reasons that this mass-market Jewish art hasn’t maintained its value the way works by Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall and Man Ray have.

“A lot of Jewish art pushed Judaism,” explains Steve Mendelson, owner of the Mendelson Gallery. “You should buy it because it’s ‘Jewish art.’ I feel like that’s a false reason to buy art. You shouldn’t buy Jewish art, you shouldn’t buy black art or Christian art or Polish art.”

Sam Berkovitz, owner of the Concept Art Gallery, said that “the higher quantity of sentimentality the work incudes, the less the residual value. In the ’80s and ’90s, certain parts of the art market pandered to people’s desire for artwork they were comfortable with or could identify with. Commercial artists capitalized on that.”

This was not unique to Jewish art, of course. “That’s a phenomenon across the board,” he said. “It’s the same practice in Cape Cod or Hawaii. There are many artists in Hawaii that paint whale paintings or underwater seascapes that sell for a lot of money.”

This is why Berkovitz’s partner, Alison Brand Oehler, recommends you never buy art while on vacation. “You’re there, you’re immersed in the history and think, ‘I want to bring something back that reminds me of this amazing experience.’ You get emotionally attached.”

“One of the reasons Jewish art has lost so much value or has such little marketplace is because later generations don’t relate to the sentimentality,” Berkovitz said.

So how do you know if your next piece of art will maintain its value?

Berkovitz uses several “validation factors” at his appraisal practice. “Things like how many museums is this person in, what’s their exhibition history, are there books written about them, is there critical attention?”

Commercial galleries interested in simply pandering to the tastes of the moment will use different techniques to sell their artwork. “These type of galleries deploy different factors. An old factor was, ‘Frank Sinatra had one of these, or Michael Jackson.’”

He said that nothing beats education for making smart purchases. “Before you buy anything, really look and look and look some more.”

Oehler agreed: “Everywhere you are, go to the museums. Develop your eye and see what is meaningful in art. The internet is an incredible source. You can research any artist.”

While art is a wonderful investment, it’s important to think of its consequences as you bequeath is to the next generation.

Matt Schwartz, an attorney at the Lange Legal Group, LLC, cautioned, “In Pennsylvania there’s the inheritance tax. If, for an example, a piece of art is worth $50,000, an heir will pay 4.5% tax on that piece of art.”

It’s important to map out a plan, he said, of what to do with any art you own before creating a will. “Without a thoughtful plan, there tends to be tension about who should have it and why. It can lead to some friction. It’s not like a financial asset that you can simply divide down the middle.”

Schwartz suggested that if millennials in your family aren’t interested in your art collection, you might consider donating it to charity. “It’s always better to give something away during your lifetime because the income tax deduction is much higher than the 4.5% tax your inheritors will have to pay.”

If your family does inherit your art collection and doesn’t want to keep it, there is a market — but it’s probably not going to have the value it did when originally bought.

“We sell a lot of this artwork at auctions,” Oehler said. “It’s not that it won’t sell. It simply sells for a fraction of the price that was paid for the work. Sometimes we even recommend it go to a house sale.”

Berkovitz believes there is value in Jewish art, if one knows what they’re buying.

“The first and second generation of artists that emigrated from Europe and landed in Palestine before it was Israel are very interesting,” he said. “They have wonderful views of Jerusalem. Moshe Castel plays around with the Hebrew alphabet. There are many, many interesting and collectible things, but you have to do your homework.”

That education, he points out, is part of the experience. “The more you understand what is available and what is historically significant, the more you’ll enjoy it.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@
pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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