Okay, here is the situation. You are a 22-year-old guy, recently out of the army, and living in a small studio apartment in the Florentine section of Tel Aviv. You are young, single, hitting the clubs every night and enjoying a simple freewheeling lifestyle.
Then one day, a distant elderly relative drops dead and leaves you a small collection of what appear to be rather old, hand-carved wooden figurines of people dressed in farmers' clothing: A hideously ugly, dismally grey glass tea service for eight; some badly tarnished silverware; a couple of weird paintings, and two very fragile looking white and yellow porcelain flower vases. Although the wooden figurines are cute, they hardly match your somewhat "austere" style of decorating, and none of the other pieces once treasured by your dear, departed old Viennese aunt seem to go with your young, masculine Israeli lifestyle.
As you contemplate these objects - unpacked from their big cardboard movers' boxes and now spread out all over your living-room floor - you inevitably begin to ask yourself the following questions: Is any of this stuff valuable? Where can I go to find out? Where could I go to learn to distinguish between genuine antiques and junk, in case another old relative dies and leaves me more old tchotchkes? Where can I sell this stuff right now for the highest possible prices?
The answer to all of these questions is Shorashim, a one-stop shop in Tel Aviv that will appraise, evaluate and auction antiques and works of art, both Israeli and international. Set in a rather hard-to-find little building hidden by trees, a cafÃ© and a huge bronze lion directly opposite the Habimah Theater, Shorashim functions as art and antique appraisers, an auction house conducting four or five auctions a year, a gallery for contemporary art and, most interestingly, as a very unique school of art.
Since the day it opened 22 years ago, Shorashim has operated the only school in Israel that teaches students not only art history, but how to appraise, evaluate, buy, sell and invest in art and antiques. Up to now, these 23-session courses - covering such topics as painting and sculpture, decorative arts, jewelry, silver, everything to do with diamonds, carpets, furniture, how to determine genuine antiques from knock-offs, banknotes, autographs and, of course, Judaica - have been offered exclusively in Hebrew. Starting in February, courses will begin in English.
SHORASHIM IS the brainchild of founder and owner Shimon Amos Leumi, 49. Tall, thin and athletic looking, Leumi comes across more like a professional basketball player than the internationally recognized art and antique expert that he is.
"My grandfather was a collector, so I was born into collecting antiques and art," Leumi begins. "After the army I met a girl, and a few months after we started to date I suddenly figured out that her father was a big art dealer in Europe. So I worked with him for a year or two, and then I started to get into the business of evaluation.
"After 1979, when the peace treaty was signed with Egypt, people started to have more money, more income. So they started to fill their house with TVs and other appliances. Things that could be stolen. So insurance became important. So I started to work in an insurance company. We gave evaluation for people's property. I worked there for seven or eight years. I worked in gem stones, and then in Israeli art. And then in 1987 I started the business of teaching.
"Wherever I was, people were always asking me what to buy, what to sell, how much. And in those days, it was much harder to get information. This was before the Internet. Now, you can find out what any kind of item is worth. But 22 years ago, you couldn't do that, so we started to teach. After five or six years of only teaching, we started to do auctions," he says.
Which brings us to the obvious question of how one really assigns value to an antique or art object? How do you determine how much something is worth?
The process of appraisal, as it turns out, is surprisingly complicated, driven by a variety of sometimes conflicting variables. Perhaps no one at Shorashim is better able to explain the vagaries of appraisal as well as Sima Simon, 58, Shorashim's elegant and very knowledgeable spokeswoman.
"Criteria include the material the thing is made of, then how many of the things there are," she explains. "Obviously something rare, like a limited edition, is more valuable. Value also goes up if the object is currently fashionable and in particular demand."
"For example, porcelain tea sets were quite popular around five years ago; now, no one is buying them anymore," Simon says. "So if the object is not currently fashionable, then there's the question of how many people might be interested in it."
"Then we look at what it depicts, if it's a painting or a piece of sculpture," she continues. "You take a lot of criteria into consideration until you can say, 'This is the price range.' It's never one fixed price, because you also have to factor in considerations like insurance, the cost to sell it, whether or not it could be replaced if something happened to it, and so on."
Simon points out that in addition to all of these criteria, auctions are a particularly valuable indicator of how much something is worth. "Even when you decide professionally how much something is worth, how much it costs, in the end the true value is how much someone is willing to pay. That's the bottom line. So in assessing the value of an object, we also need to see whether something similar has been sold recently, and at what price.
"That's where auctions come in. They provide a lot of information about recent sales and prices. That's why we call auctions the pulse of the art and antique market," she says.
Yet even this is complicated, Simon cautions, because auctions are often driven by factors that have nothing to do with an object's worth.
"You can't always draw your conclusions from the highest bid at one auction, because it sometimes happens that something at an auction is so desired by two persons that they just keep bidding against each other until the object's price is driven up artificially high," Simon says. "Then it's no longer about the object, or its value, but instead about the egos of the two competing bidders. Each simply insists on winning and refuses to let the object go. So you have to take several auctions into consideration."
This, says Simon, also enables the art dealer to see trends, like whether an antique object or the works of a particular artist are going up or down in price.
"Some painters, for example, who were very known and desired ten years ago, are not in much demand now. Others, who were unknown in auctions ten years, ago are now hot," she explains.
Simon says that the dynamics of an auction are often so subtle and nuanced that they require a fairly high level of expertise to navigate them successfully. The art and science of buying and selling at auctions are among the subjects that are taught to students in Shorashim's school of art and antique appreciation.
The art and antique world draws a fine distinction between "antiques" and "collectibles."
"Antiques are things that were produced more than around 80 years ago. Although that number changes for certain things. But certainly, anything made after World War Two is called a 'collectible,' rather than an antique," she says.
Simon explains that collectibles - like Depression-era glassware or Mickey Mouse lunchboxes - are especially subject to sudden fads, which can sometimes be created by nothing more than having them appear in a popular movie or TV show. Yet according to Simon, the most auctioned type of object throughout the world is not a collectible, but a type of antique.
Is it a walnut Louis XIV chair, or perhaps an intricately decorated Faberge egg? No, it is none other than the teddy bear - especially from the early 20th century - with two annual auctions of nothing but teddy bears in England alone.
Here in Israel, the most auctioned type of antique is the kiddush cup, Simon says.
BORN IN Turkey, Simon came to Israel at age 10. With a B.A. in English linguistics and a Masters degree in marketing, Simon joined Shorashim six years ago, after 16 years in the music industry, fighting piracy and protecting copyrights. Ironically enough, Simon was initially leery about having anything whatsoever to do with antiques.
"My parents had antique furniture, and I hated it," she recalls, laughing. Simon's perspective changed abruptly after she learned about antiques at Shorashim. "I was really amazed at how interesting and how deep the subject of antiques is."
Among her myriad other functions, Simon coordinates the Hebrew language courses at Shorashim's art school.
London native Tania Horwitz, meanwhile, looks to all the world like a 20-year-old college student, with an almost adolescent-sounding voice to match her youthful appearance. She is, however, somehow 40 years old, married with five children, the oldest of whom is 16. Horwitz is gearing up to be the coordinator for the English language art and antique courses slated to begin in February, a job to which she will bring her unique qualifications and infectious enthusiasm.
"From the time I was a baby, I've been living and breathing art," she recalls. "My father worked in antiques, and is an artist. My brother is an artist, and has also worked in auction houses."
"He's an unbelievable painter, as is my father,"
she continues. "They are both very talented Renaissance men. So I've breathed art all my life. I studied ceramics at Bezalel, and the history of art at university in Jerusalem. And then I had a ceramics studio for 13 years, mainly making Judaica for export abroad."
The English course initially will be comprised of ten lessons that, like the Hebrew course, will focus on appraisal, evaluation and investment strategies in addition to art history. Additional courses will be added in response to demand.
"This is answering a need that we have been aware of for a long time," Horwitz says. "People call us and say, 'I wish the course was in English.' I was very excited when I heard about the course opening up in English, because I know the English-speaking community, and I know the course. They bring in the real articles to show the students. It's not just a theoretical course. And it's all run by professional lecturers."
As if all this weren't enough, Shorashim also runs a well-known gallery for exhibitions by contemporary Israeli artists, and conducts several collectors trips throughout the year to art and antique fairs in Europe.
Shorashim staff provide guided tours of the fairs and local museums, as well as offering tour participants professional advice on purchasing the art and antiques they see. Shorashim also conducts guided tours to museums and art galleries throughout Israel. Up to now, these tours have been offered only in Hebrew, but will now be offered in English as well.
For more information about the upcoming English art course or other Shorashim activities, call 03-685-3553 or visit http://shorashim-art.com.