Christina Meri

Christina Meri with a kiddush cup, JMS 45

Christina Meri, Jewish Museum of Switzerland 2023

Amulettbehälter mit der Inventarnummer 887

Amulettbehälter mit der Inventarnummer 887

Chanukkia mit der Inventarnummer JMS 404

«Forgeries have misled Judaica scholars»

Six Questions to Christina Meri

For­ge­ries have found their way into many Judai­ca coll­ec­tions, inclu­ding our own. In recent years, exch­an­ges bet­ween the Jewish muse­ums in Euro­pe and abroad have shed new light on dubio­us objects. In an inter­view with muse­um direc­tor Nao­mi Lubrich, cura­tor Chris­ti­na Meri points out unu­su­al screws, blur­ry hall­marks and sus­pi­cious details – and explains how a glo­bal mar­ket traded in Jewish nostalgia.

Nao­mi Lubrich: Chris­ti­na, you have iden­ti­fied many fake Judai­ca in our coll­ec­tion. What are the key types?

Chris­ti­na Meri: The­re are for­ge­ries and fal­si­fi­ca­ti­ons, which inten­ded to simu­la­te his­to­ri­cal authen­ti­ci­ty for inte­res­ted buy­ers. In the case of sil­ver objects, they often include for­ged hall­marks. Typi­cal for­ge­ries are the lar­ge num­ber of wed­ding rings owned by Jewish muse­ums around the world. Until recent­ly, they were sold as antique Jewish-Ita­li­an jewelry.

NL: …and falsifications? 

CM: Fal­si­fi­ca­ti­ons are authen­tic his­to­ri­cal objects that were later ‹Judai­zed,› usual­ly by adding Hebrew inscrip­ti­ons. The best-known fal­si­fi­ca­ti­ons are sugar bowls and tooth­pick hol­ders, which were sold as besa­mim boxes (Hebrew: spi­ce boxes). Sin­ce Judai­ca are much rarer than nor­mal sil­ver­wa­re, they sold for hig­her pri­ces, rea­ping much grea­ter pro­fit. Other types of fal­si­fi­ca­ti­ons are objects con­sis­ting of dis­pa­ra­te com­pon­ents which were wel­ded tog­e­ther to form a new object. We have a kid­dush cup that has a base made of a for­mer cand­le­stick. The­se com­po­si­te Judai­ca often have an authen­tic sil­ver mark on one of their components.

NL: How did they find their way into the Jewish Museum’s collection?

CM: The Judai­ca anti­qui­ties’ mar­ket for­med in the 19th cen­tu­ry, at a time when pri­va­te coll­ec­tors were see­king repre­sen­ta­ti­ve, aes­the­tic Judai­ca. Many of the objects on sale were ‹show­pie­ces› for dis­play, as oppo­sed to objects inten­ded for use. At the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, com­mit­tees and asso­cia­ti­ons for pre­ser­ving Jewish cul­tu­ral arti­facts hel­ped erect Jewish muse­ums and depart­ments in local histo­ry or folk­lo­re muse­ums in many Euro­pean cities. At the time, Jewish cult objects were stu­di­ed from an eth­no­lo­gi­cal or art-his­to­ri­cal per­spec­ti­ve. As a result, the demand for Judai­ca increased, and with it a gro­wing sup­p­ly of old – and not so old – Jewish anti­qui­ties for the mar­ket. Our muse­um recei­ved many Judai­ca as per­ma­nent loans from Swiss muse­ums and as dona­ti­ons from pri­va­te indi­vi­du­als, espe­ci­al­ly during its first years after ope­ning in 1966. But over the cour­se of its almost seven­ty-year histo­ry, the muse­um also purcha­sed some objects which tur­ned out to be forgeries.

NL: How do you exami­ne an object to deter­mi­ne its authenticity?

CM: We look at the qua­li­ty and work­man­ship of our objects, and we compa­re them to other objects from the same time and place. You can often reco­gni­ze fake sil­ver objects by modern-loo­king screws, by their wiring or by the sold­e­ring. To increase the value of a Judai­ca object, sil­vers­mit­hs for­ged hall­marks of repu­ta­ble craft­smen. So if an object has mis­mat­ched city marks and sil­vers­mith marks, it can­not be genui­ne. Also look at the qua­li­ty: For­gers never attai­ned the qua­li­ty of the top sil­vers­mit­hs. Once you know about objects put tog­e­ther from dis­pa­ra­te parts, exami­ne the styl­es of each com­po­nent. You’ll easi­ly reco­gni­ze if one sec­tion has Bie­der­mei­er ele­ments and the other looks like it’s Roco­co. Look careful­ly at the engra­ved inscrip­ti­on for defects in han­di­work or spel­ling errors. And last­ly, you can see whe­ther cere­mo­ni­al objects are useful for their pur­po­se, that is, if they’re func­tion­al. We have besa­mim con­tai­ners in our coll­ec­tion with ope­nings so nar­row that they are impos­si­ble to fill with spi­ces, let alo­ne remo­ve the old spi­ces. 

NL: Do all the Jewish Muse­ums have the same types of fakes?

CM: Yes, the Jewish muse­ums in Euro­pe have simi­lar for­ge­ries. We belie­ve that a com­mon net­work of for­gers sup­pli­ed the muse­ums. Loo­king for our com­mon sup­pli­ers is detec­ti­ve work – and very exciting!

NL: How will the­se objects be writ­ten about in thir­ty years?

CM: For deca­des, the for­ge­ries have mis­led Judai­ca scho­lars. They found their way into regis­ters and scho­lar­ly artic­les. They shaped our under­stan­ding of how reli­gious cus­toms were cele­bra­ted. But the for­ged Judai­ca of the late 19th cen­tu­ry are expres­si­ons of their era. They reflect the desi­re of new­ly eman­ci­pa­ted Jews for a beau­tiful tes­ti­mo­nies of a digni­fied past. They give us insight into the sta­te of scho­lar­ship at a time when the stu­dy of Jewish folk­lo­re was just emer­ging. The objects are repre­sen­ta­ti­ve – and con­ju­re up fee­lings of nost­al­gia. In thir­ty years, hop­eful­ly, the for­ge­ries will be unders­tood, can be iden­ti­fied, and their con­text of ori­gin will be reappraised.

 NL: Chris­ti­na, let’s hope it goes fas­ter! Thank you very much for sha­ring your exper­ti­se – along with the fol­lo­wing sources: 

Vivi­an B. Mann, The First Eng­lish Coll­ec­tor of Jewish Wed­ding Rings and their Dea­lers, in: IMAGES, Bd. 11, Lei­den 2018, 177–185.

Alfred Mol­do­van, Foo­lish­ness, Fakes, and For­ge­ries in Jewish Art. An Intro­duc­tion to the Dis­cus­sion on Judai­ca Con­ser­va­ti­on and Coll­ec­ting Today, in: Cla­re Moo­re (Hrsg.), The Visu­al Dimen­si­on. Aspects of Jewish Art, 1. Aufl., Rout­ledge 1993, 105–119.

Bern­hard Purin, Judai­ca in Süd­deutsch­land. Eine Typo­lo­gie, Kap. 6: Fäl­schun­gen, Ver­fäl­schun­gen und Repli­ken, in: Otto Lohr, Bern­hard Purin (Hrsg.), Jüdi­sches Kul­tur­gut. Erken­nen-Bewah­ren-Ver­mit­teln, Berlin/München 2017, 90–93.

Jay Wein­stein, A Coll­ec­tors’ Gui­de to Judai­ca, Kap. 18: Fakes and For­ge­ries, Lon­don 1985.

verfasst am 11.07.2023