Topic: eBay Judaica Project
eBay item number: 6137300944. December 8, 2004.
Starting bid: $19.99. Item location: Adelaide, South Australia.
Internet Auctions and Judaica Collecting
While the connoisseurship and collecting of Judaica far predate the keyboard and mouse, the encounter of Jewish art and artifacts with online auctions such as eBay is sure to have an indelible effect upon the individuals and institutions that collect Judaica. Serving as an uncurated bazaar for a vast range of objects––coins, posters, records, historical documents, books, ceremonial art, baseball cards, paintings, sheet music, postcards––eBay has democratized and diversified Judaica collecting by expanding the collecting community and broadening the parameters of what “counts” as Judaica. At the same time, the laissez-faire, often impersonal nature of online auctions and e-commerce make it difficult to gauge the worth, authenticity and provenance of objects, complicating a market rife with fakes and forgeries.
The exhibition Culture as Commodity: Internet Auctions and Judaica Collecting, at the Judaica Museum of the Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale in 2001-2002, explored a host of questions arising from this phenomenon. The challenge: to purchase all the objects for display in the exhibition through online auctions (chiefly eBay) with a $5,000 budget. The rules: to consider for inclusion anything that eBay sellers themselves had categorized as Judaica. The goals: to problematize visitors’ conceptions about what sort of material––and information––belongs in a museum of Judaica, and to introduce museum visitors to the practices and tastes of the online collecting community.
The items won at auction and chosen for display included a seventeenth-century engraved map of the Holy Land; sheet music for the Al Jolson number “Carolina Mammy,” published in 1922; a pair of embroidered tefilin bags, probably from the first quarter of the twentieth century; and a Hank Greenberg baseball card from 1938. The label for each object included a listing of the bidding history––the starting and ending prices and the number of bids offered––so that viewers, privy to the details of acquisition that museums usually conceal, might ponder the values and vagaries of Internet collecting and the fluid boundary between museum and marketplace.
Has eBay transformed Jewish culture into just one more salable good, to be auctioned off with impunity? Or have online auctions provided greater access to, and a more nuanced portrait of, Jewish culture? Is the Internet simply another venue for buying and selling Judaica, or has it changed the nature of Judaica collecting, even shaping new forms of community? Commerce and culture, economics and edification: perhaps collecting has changed less than we think, even in the eBay age.
Project: Create an Exhibition
Using the collecting process exemplified by Culture as Commodity, create a virtual exhibition of Jewish objects in order to explore the issues outlined above.
- Each student/group of students will be given a virtual budget.
- Visit online auctions and, using your own criteria, select and “win” Judaica objects. (Tip: search obvious categories such as “Judaica” and “Jewish,” but also try entering misspellings such as “Judica” and “Judiaca” into the search engine.)
- For a virtual exhibition, simply follow auctions without bidding, acting as the winning bidder for each chosen item for the purposes of the project (within the limits of the set budget).
- Correspond with the sellers. (You may e-mail the seller whether or not you’re really bidding on an object; this is standard practice.) Ask them questions about the history of the object, including where they found or bought it and why they’re selling it.
- Build a Web site or compose a scrapbook with images, archived eBay pages, correspondence with sellers, and a research bibliography as you “collect” objects.
- Create a proposal for a final exhibition, including explanatory text panels and individual labels for objects and a rationale for how the objects would be organized and displayed.
- Don’t forget to give the exhibition a title!
- Which object in your exhibition garnered the highest bid? The lowest? Which object attracted the most interest (i.e., the greatest number of bids)? The least?
- Were you surprised with the way auctions turned out? Why do you think the auctions turned out the way they did? Can you detect any patterns in the outcomes? (i.e., were particular categories of items more likely to get higher or lower bids?)
- Do you feel you created a personal connection with any of the sellers? For example, did you share anecdotes with sellers or discuss subjects not directly relevant to the auction?
- What is your favorite object in the exhibition? Why?
- In which specific museum(s) could you imagine your exhibition finding a home? Why?
The American Association of Museums’ definition of Judaica
Reviews of Culture as Commodity Exhibition:
Lisa Keys. "Save That Tchotchke! It May Be Tomorrow's Museum Piece." The Forward, December 7, 2001
"New York, New York – Metropole im Wandel." Aufbau, issue 25, 2001.
Cohen, Richard I. “Self-Image Through Objects: Toward a Social History of Jewish Art Collecting.” In The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era, ed. Jack Wertheimer. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Joselit, Jenna Weissman. The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “The Way We Live Now.” New York Times Magazine, December 23, 2001. Available online through Proquest.
Roth, Cecil. “The Art and Craft of Jewish Collecting: Dealings in Higher Junk.” Commentary 23:6 (June 1957), 541-547.
_________. “Caveat Emptor Judaeus.” Commentary 43:3 (1967), 84-86
Zollman, Joellyn Wallen. “Shopping for a Future: A History of the American Synagogue Gift Shop.” Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 2002. Available online through Proquest. Please consult your library about online access. NYU users click here.