Auctions | November 11, 2013

Bonhams’ Inaugural Judaica Sale Offers Documentation of Washington’s Synagogue Visit

NEW YORK—Bonhams will offer two extraordinarily rare 1790 newspaper clippings in the inaugural Judaica sale on December 10, documenting President George Washington's visit to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, the oldest surviving Jewish Synagogue building in North America (est. $80,000-100,000). The experience would inspire Washington's famous quote, "To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

The President was met by Moses Seixas, one of the officials of the bustling port city's Jewish congregation, on his trip to Newport in August of that year. Seixas gave an eloquent welcome speech, expressing the Jewish community's satisfaction with democracy, and their desire for a life in America free from the shackles of old-world prejudice.

After his departure, George Washington wrote a letter to the Jews of Newport, now known as the "Touro Letter," which contained his famous passage addressing bigotry. It is considered a fundamental document establishing Washington's belief in the separation of church and state. 

Bonhams will offer two pages from the Gazette of the United States, printed in Philadelphia, one dated September 11, 1790, and the other from September 15 of the same year. Together, they contain the full text of both Seixas' original address to Washington, as well as the President's famous response, and a description of Washington's walking tour through the city. The papers are extremely rare, and only three other copies of the September 11 copy are known to exist today.

The December 10 auction will be Bonhams inaugural Judaica sale in New York. It will feature an energizing selection of over 225 pieces, including historic documents and archives, fine arts, decorative arts, ceremonial arts, prints, posters and textiles. 

The auction's top lot is a splendid oil on canvas composition from Rueven Rubin, the highly influential Romanian-born Israeli painter ($100,000-150,000). Titled Harvest Time in Galilee, this quintessential Rubin composition features a Cezanne-esque landscape that clearly shows his characteristic attention to translucent light. 

Additional highlights from 20th century artistic luminaries include a gouache on paper study by Robert Motherwell from 1951 titled Walls of the Temple (est. $20,000-30,000). The study was made for the Congregation B'nai Israel Synagogue, in Millburn, New Jersey, and depicts iconic Jewish symbols, including a decalogue, Jacob's Ladder, The Ark, and the Burning Bush in Motherwell's striking modernist style. 

Folk and decorative arts highlights include a lively sculpture of a decalogue flanked by lions, attributed to Marcus Illions (est. $30,000-35,000). Illions was a heralded New York City carousel artisan in the early 20th century, who also created decorative sculptural elements for the city's Jewish congregations. Displayed at the American Folk Art Museum in 2007, such carvings are considered the first authentically American Jewish folk art. Leading scholar Professor Murray Zimiles will present a related lecture on Jewish folk art at Bonhams New York on December 2. 

"The December 10 auction is a diverse celebration of Jewish culture worldwide, with important pieces from as early as the 16th century up to the present day,"  said Dr Rachael Goldman, Bonhams Consulting Specialist in Judaica. Dr Goldman will give a tour of the sale on December 8. 

Bonhams Judaica auction will take place December 10 in New York. The auction will preview at Bonhams December 5-10. 

A fully illustrated catalog will be available at