In Holland, a rare menorah hides in plain sight


AMSTERDAM — Nothing about object MB02280 suggests it is the city’s priciest menorah, worth more than a duplex home.

Shaped like the body of a violin, it is only 16 inches tall. Its base cradles eight detachable oil cups intended to function as candles on Chanukah. They are set against the menorah’s smooth, reflective surface, whose edges boast elaborate rococo reliefs.

But for all its charms, the Nieuwenhuys menorah — created by non-Jewish silversmith Harmanus Nieuwenhuys — doesn’t stand out. Far from the oldest one there, it certainly doesn’t look like it’s worth its estimated price of $450,000. The menorah hides in plain sight because its worth owes “more to its story than to its physical characteristics,” said Irene Faber, a museum curator.

Made in 1751 for an unidentified Jewish patron, the Nieuwenhuys menorah’s story encapsulates the checkered history of Dutch Jewry. And it is tied to the country’s royal family, as well as a Jewish war hero who gave his life for his country.

The price tag of the Nieuwenhuys menorah is roughly known because a similar menorah made by the same silversmith fetched an unprecedented $441,000 at a 2016 auction. An anonymous collector clinched it at the end of a bidding war that made international news. It was initially expected to fetch no more than $15,000.

That menorah came from the collection of the Maduros, a Jewish family that produced one of Holland’s most celebrated war heroes. The Nazis murdered George Maduro in Dachau after they caught him smuggling downed British pilots home. In 1952, his parents built in his memory one of Holland’s must-see attractions: the Madurodam, a miniature city.

Besides the menorah on display at the Jewish Historical Museum, the Netherlands has another very expensive one in the Rintel Menorah: A 4-footer that the Jewish Historical Museum bought last year for a whopping $563,000. Far more ostentatious than the modest-looking Nieuwenhuys menorah, the Rintel, from 1753, is made of pure silver and weighs several kilograms. It is currently on loan to the Kroller-Muller Museum 50 miles east of Amsterdam.

The Jewish Historical Museum has no intention of selling the Nieuwenhuys, Faber said, although it could attract even more spectacular bids owing to its provenance: It was bought by the late queen of the Netherlands, Wilhelmina, as a gift for her mother and given to the museum by her grandson, King Willem-Alexander.

“We don’t know who commissioned the work, but from the reputation of the artist and the amount of labor it took, it was probably a wealthy Jewish family, perhaps of Sephardic descent,” Faber told JTA last week at the museum.

At the center of the object is a round network of decorations “that probably contains the owner’s initials,” Faber said, “but we haven’t been able to decipher it. It’s a riddle.” The monogram was one of several techniques that Nieuwenhuys and other Christian silversmiths in the Netherlands developed for rich Jewish clients.

Before the 1800s, no Jews were allowed to smith silver in the Netherlands because they were excluded from silversmith guilds. “It kept out competition, but it meant that Christian smiths needed to become experts at making Jewish religious artifacts like this menorah,” Faber said.

The menorahs illustrate Jewish customers’ sophisticated tastes. The Maduro menorah was symmetrical with Baroque highlights, and the Nieuwenhuys is asymmetrical with rococo characteristics that were “pretty avant-garde for its time,” Faber said.

Queen Wilhelmina bought the menorah for an unknown price at a 1907 auction to give it as a gift to her mother, Princess Emma.

The purchase may appear inconsequential, but its significance is evident against the backdrop of anti-Semitism among other European royal houses. German Emperor Wilhelm II, a contemporary of Wilhelmina, famously said in 1925 that “Jews and mosquitoes are a nuisance that humankind must get rid of some way or another,” adding “I believe the best way is Gas.”

Belgium’s King Leopold III stated in 1942 that he had “no personal animosity” toward Jews, but declared them nonetheless “a danger” to his country. He raised no objections when Germans and their collaborators began deporting Belgian Jews to their deaths.

But in the Netherlands, where thousands of Jews settled after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition of the 16th century, royals not only refrained from such statements but were genuinely “interested in other faiths,” Faber said. Wilhelmina’s gifting of a menorah to her mother “isn’t strange for her,” Faber said. “I imagine she found it fun, something to talk about with her mother.” After all, “Jews have always been under the protection of the Royal House.”

Except, that is, from 1940 to 45, when Queen Wilhelmina fled to the United Kingdom. She mentioned the suffering of her Jewish subjects three times in her radio speeches to the Dutch people.

Whereas before the war “Jews always sought the Royal House,” during and after “it appeared Wilhelmina didn’t think too much about the Jews,” Faber said. Relations between Dutch Jews and the Royal House underwent a “rupture.”

But this gradually healed. The fact that King Willem-Alexander, Wilhelmina’s great-grandson, in 2012 gave the Nieuwenhuys menorah on an open-ended loan to the Jewish museum on its 90th anniversary “symbolizes the healing of the rupture,” Faber said.