Antiques under the hammer

Meron Eren and Avishai Galer have turned their passion for rare collectibles into an auction house.

antiques 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
antiques 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
It was unlikely that Meron Eren and Avishai Galer would meet or develop any kind of friendship. Eren is a secular man who lives on a farm in the Negev and raises a herd of goats. Galer is a haredi man who lives in Modi’in Illit and teaches at a yeshiva for ba’alei tshuva, something he regards more as a spiritual mission than a job. Yet the two are not only close friends but partners in a business, which is more a way of life than a classical source of income. What brought them together has nothing to do with some of the current discourses or activities of bringing haredim and secular together – the two hardly ever talk about those issues, if at all.
Eren and Galer share a passion for antiques, be they old books and manuscripts or Israeli art. This shared passion has been translated into a business called Kedem, the first and largest auction house in Jerusalem.
Kedem was established four and a half years ago, first in Givat Shaul and, as of this year, on the ground floor of the Heichal Shlomo building in the city center. The large premises are filled with books, paintings and photos, but the overall feeling at first is that of an almost empty hall. Strict order reigns supreme in the Kedem offices – no sense of a small, cramped space filled with objects packed in helterskelter.
In his office, at a round wooden and glass table, Eren, a tall, soft-spoken man nearing 50, with a long black beard, recounts how he entered into the world of auctions.
“It all stemmed from my love of old papers and ancient items. I lived in Italy for eight years and worked at local fairs, where people buy and sell antiques. When I decided to return to Israel, I knew I would continue in that field,” he says.
During those years, Eren also began to buy some objects and became increasingly interested in collecting old books and ancient objects with a Jewish background.
Today, says Eren, there is no longer a place for open markets of antiques and rare objects. “The Internet revolution has completely changed this field, and serious collectors and valuable objects can now be found mostly on the auction market that works through the Internet.”
Galer’s path was not very different from his partner’s except, of course, for the different personal background.
“My father left me some ancient sacred books,” Galer says. “He brought some ancient and valuable books from Germany, and I slowly began to collect such books. I developed an interest and love for them and acquired some knowledge about ancient manuscripts and rare signatures. That’s how it all began.”
Galer and Eren met at a few auctions in Israel. They got closer to each other over their shared interest for the same kinds of objects – ancient and beautiful books, manuscripts and rare signatures of famous authors or rabbis from past centuries. They also share the same interest in Israeli art, in all its aspects, since the beginning of the Zionist era.
“There is a tremendous number of art objects related to the history of this land,” says Eren, “and up to now, almost nothing has been catalogued and even less collected – posters, advertising, so many things.
They are here, and they await someone’s interest and care to be presented to the public and obtain their rightful place.”
Eren talks about the risks involved in their type of business. There are mistakes to be avoided, yet they are unavoidable, at least at the beginning.
“We learn quickly in this domain. One develops an eye to recognize. But, of course, we help each other.
Today I may recognize at least what kind of sacred Jewish book deserves attention, but Avishai will ultimately give his opinion, and vice versa with contemporary Israeli art.”
Recently, the two decided to enter an area they have not ventured into before – contemporary Israeli art and paintings. For that task, they have an expert who owns a gallery and curates the paintings that will be presented at the next auction, which will take place in February.
“There are quite a few auction houses in Israel,” says Galer. “We are not the only ones, but we are unique in that we offer such a wide range of items of so many different types – books, manuscripts, paintings, art, Judaica. Most of the others work in one field only, not to mention the professionalism we insist on in all the auctions we run, with extensive use of experts, modern technology and care of the objects,” stresses Galer.
Asked about their choice to operate Kedem from Jerusalem instead of Tel Aviv, where there is more money and customers, Eren says the question had arisen, but their decision was to remain in Jerusalem.
“In any case,” he explains, “most of our customers live outside Israel, and through extensive use of the Internet and our site, it doesn’t really matter. We don’t rely on the local market of customers.”
With regard to what they have leaned about the profession, the partners say that the first conclusion is that people are not aware of the potential treasures they may have in their homes.
“At one of our recent auctions, we had a book with a rare signature,” says Galer. “A woman had brought in the book for my partner to look at. She didn’t think it was very valuable, but inside the book we found the signature of Rabbi Mafta, an admor [scholarly leader] from Russia, who put his signature on only rare occasions, and we thought we’d give it a try.”
The book was proposed at $200, but it was sold for $40,000, Galer exclaims.
The same thing happened at another auction, with a ketuba (marriage contract) that was sold for $10,000 after being estimated at $200, despite its being in very poor condition.
“Just because it was a very rare kind, that was enough for one collector to pay that sum. People should be aware that they might have very valuable rare things in their houses,” says Galer.