Some people begin collecting because they've coveted certain objects for as long as they can remember. Others collect as an investment. And, of course, there are poseurs who hire prestige dealers to buy them trendy art because they want to be viewed as taste mavens.
Harry Sondheim, a retired criminal prosecutor for the L.A. County D.A.'s office, started to collect Judaica for none of those reasons. He was traveling in Holland when he simply noticed an artifact that appealed to him: "They had a museum, Der Weg, which means the Weighing House. They had an artist named Bicart. I bought some postcards with depictions of Jewish ceremonies on them. You can't buy those postcards any longer."
Reflecting his legal training, Sondheim answers questions methodically. Even his decision to focus on rare books, as opposed to art, shows a judicious attitude.
"It's pretty hard to falsify a book," he said, adding, "they're not as likely to be stolen. If you have a thief in the house, they're more likely to steal a silver menorah."
Maybe it matters, too, that Sondheim attended the University of Chicago in the era when that institution still featured the Great Books courses.
Sondheim will be speaking at the 39th California International Antiquarian Book Fair's "Collecting Your Roots" panel on Sunday, Feb. 19.
He especially likes rare manuscripts that include illustrations or, as he says, "depictions" of Jewish ceremonies and customs.
Sondheim has never taken a vacation specifically to collect books, but has purchased manuscripts at synagogues, museums and bookstores around the world, including Germany, where he can trace his genealogy back to around 1760. His family fled Germany in 1938, several months before Kristallnacht. The tomes he favors are typically printed in German, their existence all the more remarkable because of the Nazis' program of burning Jewish books.
The best deal he ever got was a work by Arthur Szyk, a Polish Jewish artist from the first half of the 20th century who specialized in political caricatures and miniature painting. Given Sondheim's background in the law, it is not surprising that he bought the "Statut of Kalisz." The book is Szyk's interpretation of a 13th-century manuscript that has been called the "Jewish Magna Carta," a decree by which a Polish king gave Jews civil rights. Szyk illustrated the manuscript while also relating the statute to some other events in Jewish history.
"One page shows different occupations a Jew might have had, weaving, baking, a cobbler," Sondheim said. "I acquired that at a reasonable price, around $17,000. Someone else's copy was recently auctioned off for $64,000."
Sondheim does not use eBay though he'll search through an auction house's Web site, which he calls "the equivalent of having their catalog."
Collecting, he says, is "a sort of continuum. There are pictures of chuppahs from hundreds of years ago, and you have chuppahs today. You live the present through the past."
The 39th California International Antiquarian Book Fair will be held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, 2025 Avenue of the Stars, from Friday, Feb. 17 through Sunday, Feb. 19. Harry Sondheim will speak at the "Collecting Your Roots" panel, a free seminar, on Sunday at 2 p.m. For information, call (800) 454-6401.