Monday, October 7, 2013

Moses Mendelssohn Letter sold Oct 3, 2013 at Skinner's Auction IS APPARENTLY A FORGERY ! buyer paid $5,100 for a fake

On Oct 03, Skinner held a Judaica Auction, lot 22 was a letter written by Moses Mendelssohn, which sold for $5,100. This letter is a apparently a Forgery, or an early copy, sold unknowingly by Skinner. The lot was sold as part of the collection of the leading Zionist, Nahum Goldmann, who passed away in 1982.

This is a great accusation to make, but after reviewing the facts, the conclusion seems indisputable.
Above is the photo as it appears in the auction catalog. Unbeknown to the catalogers, this letter was written to Rabbi Yaakov Emden, and was published by Rabbi Yaakov Emden in התאבקות published in 1762. As is known, Mendelssohn referred to R. Emden as his Rabbi and their correspondence regarding delaying burial according to halacha appears in She'elat Yaavetz, Emden's responsa. Thankfully I have the Renaissance Hebraica facsimile of Emden's book and was able to look up the original letter as Emden transcribed it. Below is a photograph of Emden's transcription of the Letter he received from Mendelssohn as it appears on דף קסב in התאבקות.
3 lines into the letter R. Yaakov Emden notes in parentheses that "from this point on, the letter was burnt"  מכאן ואילך נשרף והאריך בענין כת הטומאה של ש"צ שר"י שהם גרועים מחזירי יער עד
In the copy of the letter, most likely copied in the 19th century from התאבקות the letter is complete and nothing is burnt or missing !

Jehoshua Pierce, a dealer who specializes in this field and who has seen numerous Mendelssohn pieces informed me that he independently made the conclusion that the handwriting on the letter offered was not of Mendelssohn. For comparison, see below a letter in the Leo Baeck Collection written by Mendelssohn.

In addition, there are differences in the actual handwriting of the one offered for sale and Mendelssohn's known handwriting, as well as several grammar differences from Mendelssohn's own style. For example, Berlin is spelled on the above letter בערלין while Mendelssohn wrote is as ברלין, and see the header of the page which has the acronym בע"ה while Mendelssohn wrote is as ב"ה.

I think we can safely assume that the sale of this letter was done unknowingly by all parties involved, but this case just reinforces what most of us already know, that even auction houses can err. A buyer of anything, especially of something of such historical importance should do his own diligence in evaluating the item offered.

Many Thanks to Yosef Goldman for discovering the original letter in התאבקות and sharing with me the source and pointing out the difference.


  1. Thanks for the essay. It may well be a forgery (I have other reasons for considering this letter suspicious), but who forged it? Do you know who bought it?

    More importantly, what grounds were given for its sudden discovery in 2013? It has never been sold at auction before, and no one has ever claimed owning or seeing the original letter after its publication in 1769. No one could locate a copy in 1929 when a deliberate attempt was made to locate every Hebrew letter written by Mendelssohn. Who allegedly preserved it? Where has it been for the last two hundred years? If we could get a persuasive answer to the above questions, I would be less inclined to label the letter a forgery, despite the problems you raise. The problems can be explained away.

    1. The high bidder was a phone bidder so I do not know who bought it, though I suspect he may say something once word gets out that it may not be what it is said to be. There was no provenance mentioned in the auction other than it coming from the Goldmann Collection, and the description did not mention that it was written to R. Emden.

    2. Proof of forgery:

      Mendelssohn's Jewish letters were recorded in 1929 in Berlin. There are over 150 letters. On all letters Mendelssohn writes ב"ה on the top right. He also writes ברלין not בערלין. This letter has the spelling בע"ה and בערלין with an ע. This made me suspicious.

      In looking for the source of this letter I found it appeared in המגיד vol. 21 pg. 66. He quotes this letter from Emden's book התאבקות.
      In checking his book I saw Emden's entry where he writes in the middle of the letter some lines were burned. He writes after the words ספריו הנחמדים some lines were burned. The letter continues with ברוך ה. Obviously some words are missing. The letter from Skinner inserted two words afterwards הגיע לידי, which are not in Emden's original letter. This is not a plain copy, someone intentionally altered this. There are only two possibilities to explain this: 1. Emden lied(which I doubt). 2. That Mendelssohn wrote two letters, one for Emden and one for Skinner's auction house.