AMSTERDAM: MAKERS of Jewish ritual metalwork tended to be a relatively conservative breed – slow to respond to wider artistic cross-currents – but illustrated above are a pair of English silver Torah finials or Rimmonim, 161/2in (42cm) high, which demonstrate there are exceptions to the rule.
Both the objects and their provenance are remarkable.
In 1780, keen to mark a major event in the history of their community – the inauguration of the newly-built White’s Row Synagogue in 1781 – the Portsmouth Jewish community took the unorthodox path of approaching a fashionable English female silversmith to produce a pair of Rimmonim in a contemporary style.
Hester Bateman of London – ‘Queen of English Silversmiths’ – was commissioned to make one of the very few pieces of Judaica she would hallmark during her career.
This pair of Rimmonim, wholly her own design, show a clear break in the prevailing artistic style of Rimmonim produced during the first century after the re-admission of the Jews to England in 1657. They reject the established Dutch tower-form in favour of English neoclassicism – but were evidently well-received.
During the 1780s the Portsmouth community (the second to be founded in England after London) was overshadowed by an internal schism – but it is interesting that the refined shape and restrained decoration of the new Rimmonim impressed both old and new communities. Five years later the new community ordered a pair of vase-shaped Rimmonim (unmarked but inscribed in Hebrew for 1785) copied directly from the 1780 Bateman originals.
Until relatively recently both pairs were in the possession of the synagogue – indeed when the historian Cecil Roth, working in the 1930s, completed a study of the Portsmouth Jewish community his work included an analysis of the two pairs of finials.
Roth may have been a great historian but he was no silver expert: attributing the Bateman Rimmonim on the strength of the date letter to 1820 (when she had already been dead a number of years) and concluding that the pair inscribed for 1785 were the originals. It is a matter for conjecture but this could explain why, on deciding to sell a pair in the 1980s, the community opted to part with the Bateman Rimmonim (believing them to be the later copies). A sale was negotiated with a dealer who passed them on to the collector who consigned them for sale at Christie’s Amsterdam on June 1.
Now perhaps the only fully documented pair of English Torah finials which are likely to come onto the open market, they sold comfortably above hopes to a US private collector for $275,000 (£172,000) – plus 20 per cent premium.