The Arty Semite

A Royal Menorah in Amsterdam

By Menachem Wecker

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A Hanukkah lamp that was recently given to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam may have one of the most compelling provenances of any Jewish ritual object.

The lamp was created by a Christian (Dutch Reformed) silversmith, Harmanus Nieuwenhuys, for the Dutch Jewish community in 1751 — when Jews were still barred from guilds. (Harmanus’ son Hendrik also created ritual objects for Jewish patrons.)

By all accounts, it appears to have gotten a good deal of use, and a condition report from the museum identifies the object as “good (dent in back).” In 1907 Queen Wilhelmina (1880-1962) of the Kingdom of the Netherlands bought the lamp at auction and gave it as an Easter gift to her mother, Queen Emma (1858-1934).

Staff at the Jewish Historical Museum may have learned of the lamp’s existence following its inclusion in 1965 in the book “History of Dutch Silver,” according to Irene Faber, the head of collections at the museum. The lamp was given on short-term loan to the museum at some point in the 1980s, she adds. “We do not know what the occasion was, probably an exhibition on ceremonial objects or about history of the Jews in Holland.”

And now, the lamp, which this reporter recently viewed in a museum back room, has found its way to the Jewish community again through Christian hands.

Then-prince of Orange and now king, Willem-Alexander, visited the Jewish museum in October 2012 for the celebration of the museum’s 80th anniversary. Following that visit, the Historic Collections Trust of the House of Orange-Nassau gave the lamp to the museum on long-term loan.

From October 2012 until April 2013, the lamp appeared in its own showcase in the middle of the museum’s permanent collection. It was taken off of view in May 2013, and it will re-emerge in the permanent exhibit “when a complete make-over will be done in 2015 or 2016,” according to Faber. “We like to tell a story with it, which is integrated into our storyline of the history of the Jews in the Netherlands.”

The lamp features a row of large oil wells — whose forms evoke the shapes of both certain Islamic doorways and “flame” light bulbs — set below a back wall, with asymmetrical decorations of flower and leaf motifs, C scrolls, and rocaille. The back plate also contains a monogram, which might contain the name of the patron, although it cannot be deciphered.

In addition to this Hanukkah lamp, the silversmith’s work appears in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum and the Rijksmuseum. Since 2007, several pieces with Nieuwenhuys’ mark (such as a set of six candlesticks, a coffee urn, and a milk jug) have exceeded pre-auction estimates at Christie’s, while others (such as another coffee urn and a teapot) have fallen within the estimates.

In 2006, Christie’s sold a pair of candlesticks with the silversmith’s mark for $20,893 — more than double the high end of the estimate.


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