News & Events
Discover Mid-America December 2006
by Terri Baumgardner
The old Bible's edges are worn by the hands of unnamed people who sought divine guidance in their life's journey.
It's as though the antique is endowed with a mysticism that reaches to the heavens.
"People want a connection with a greater reality, they long for is a deeper meaning in life," said Daniel Stramara, Jr., Ph.D. and associate professor of early church history at Rockhurst University in Kansas City.
"So from their point of view, this object enables them to think about something which is of a deeper value and the past. The past as in a continuity within history, within meaning, that there are enduring truths."
Whether the antique is a Bible, old map of Jerusalem, a worn Rosary, an Orthodox icon, an old church pew, stained glass from a temple or a rare theology book, their buyers seem to want a sense of the divine.
The shops and dealers who sell religious antiques are few, but their sales are steady or growing at a rapid pace. It matters not whether the buyer seeks intellectual inspiration or holds the antique for the mere beauty of its art, religious antiques have a broad range of appeal to both young and older customers, those from the Midwest or customers around the world.
"As for theology books, I just unwrapped a piece from a dealer in London," said Lloyd Zimmer, owner of Lloyd Zimmer Books & Maps in Topeka, Kansas.
"It's for a customer from Oklahoma. A computer analyst, he's a fairly religious person, very intelligent person. He loves to compare and contrast commentaries and interpretations of the Bible. When there is writing in the margins, he loves it. He loves names; he tracks down the people. He reads fluent Latin, Greek and Hebrew, he reads books that are not of common knowledge."
In Zimmer's bookshop the shelves are lined with about a1,000 titles of theology books and Bibles. He buys books from dealers, ministers, estate sells, private collections and libraries.
"Some of the most interesting theology books comes from a local gentleman," Zimmer said. "He traveled all over the world, collected Bibles and theology books for 50 years. He obtained really early theology material."
Among Zimmer's antique religious texts is a rare 1751 Bible, which is translated from the ninth century. It is priced at $3,750.
"Extremely rare," Zimmer said. "Old church Slavonic was the original translation. From the 800s A.D., the translation was passed down in manuscript form, passed down by scribes who would hand write the translation. It's extremely rare because not many were published.
“Originally published in St. Petersburg, it is a massive piece from a church, an abbey or institution. I've only tracked down one copy in Canada, they are the only known two copies in North America."
Although Zimmer has noticed a rise in sales of religious antiques since September of 2001, his clients and sales are steady. So it is at Spivey's Rare Books, Maps and Fine Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
In fact, Spivey's recently sold a 1723 Martin Luther Bible published in German.
"The Lutherans and Martin Lutherans were prolific printers, and there were a lot of German printing houses in the United States," said Hans Bremer, manager of Spivey's bookshop. "A lot of religious books are published in French, Latin, some Italian, Hebrew and Arabic. A lot of people buy Bibles in old English, they don't want a new version where the language changed."
Some Bibles in Spivey's shop are from the Civil War era, carried by soldiers in their backpacks. Another Bible is inscribed from Dublin, Ireland in 1823.
But not all aged books sold are Bibles.
"I sold books yesterday to buyers in Europe," Bremer said. "A lot of collectors buy books on Mormonism, it's a huge market. Mormon books are highly collectible in various printings but they are not always purchased by religious collectors. Some western Americana collectors get them for the trails going west."
One of Spivey's biggest sellers is an eight-volume collection of early 17th century writings centered on St. Thomas Aquinas and other early theological writings.
"Books of a religious nature by late 15th and early 16th century writers," Bremer said. "Erasmus, he was a great philosopher. And, last spring, we purchased a library of a Catholic priest in St. Louis, and the books are all about St. Thomas Aquinas. I'm amazed at how quickly they sold, these books have just flown out the door."
While religious texts are big sellers in the antique market, some ancient religious writings are beyond monetary value and appeal to the masses. Such religious antiquities include the Dead Sea Scrolls, which will be on exhibit from February 8 through May 13, 2007 at Union Station Kansas City Inc. in Kansas City, Missouri.
The exhibit is the only viewing in the Midwest, and is the epitome of historic tourism.
"Other cities have seen upwards of 200,000 people or more," said Ray Shubinski, curator of the Dead Seas Scrolls exhibit. "Expect a lot out of Kansas City, a 400-mile radius of tourists."
The exhibit features more than 800 pieces of scrolls, which were discovered in Israeli caves in 1947. The scrolls, which represent the Books of the Old Testament and written on sheepskin, are thought to have been written sometime between 200 years before the birth of Christ up to 50 years A.D. The exhibit belongs to the state of Israel and is under the government department of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
"I'm just incredibly interested in their historical importance about the Jewish faith and the history of the world at that time, a time when Rome took possession of Israel," Shubinski said. "Things changed dramatically about 100 years within the writing of the Scrolls."
The Kansas City exhibit, however, features other antique religious texts from the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas. Such writings include a 1st Edition of the King James Bible from England, which was printed in 1611, Jewish writings and early European manuscripts.
"When I see (the Dead Sea Scrolls), the handwritten letters, I feel a real connection with the human beings of the past," Shubinski said. "That's inspiring, but everyone is going to bring something different to the Scrolls, all of us respond differently to religious artifacts."
And some people are quite private about their fascination with religious antiques.
"A lot of people, when buying religious items, are reserved," Bremer said. "They don't discuss why."
As may be the case with Spivey's customers who search out old maps, some of which depict various religions.
"Most of the maps are of Jerusalem, Palestine," Bremer said. "Some Islam. Normally, they'll depict places in the Bible, where religious shrines are, where Moses was. In the case of Islam, maps show different trails people take to Mecca. Maps of India relate things depicting Buddhism."
Islamic, Buddhism and Jewish antiques are not as common as those of other faiths, but the treasures sell well.
"We have vials, people went to Israel and bought water from the Jordan River," said Charla Henry, owner of Henry's Antiques, Collectibles and Tea Room in Lee's Summit, Missouri. "We have a lot of carved pieces and crosses from Israel. We have had Buddhas. I tell you, people are buying them up. And, they like Jewish scarves."
Henry's shop, housed in a 1949 First Christian Church, contains an array of religious items — but her collection of antiques from old Midwestern churches is unrivaled.
"They are very hard to keep, they just sell so fast," Henry said. "Currently, we have three stained glass windows, they came from a church in Maryville, Missouri. They are at least 100 years old. They cost about $500 each. And a pew, wood, it came from a church in Deepwater, Missouri."
Henry believes the religious antiques market is on the rise, and that it is a reflection of the American society.
"People, even if they are not church members, still have a place in their heart of believing in God," Henry said. "And I think these (antiques) bring comfort to people. I think that's why the Fundamentalist Churches are growing so fast, people are seeking a deep, down spiritual belief."
And, it appears those searchers of religious items don't necessarily seek antiques related to their faith. For instance, Protestant customers purchase Catholic antiques.
"Old rosaries," Henry said, "They sell fast. But, we get lots of them, anywhere from the 1920s and ‘30s. Last rites boxes, a lot of people have those hanging their bedrooms. They use them for the same purpose."
Catholic antiques dominate the market, observers say, because the faith is so symbolic and ornate. However, personal items from followers of the faith are more readily available than those from a Catholic Church. That is because the Catholic Church holds those antiques to be sacred and beyond monetary value.
"We don't recommend selling a relic, it should be given to a church," said Father Michael Coleman, an archivist of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. "Sacred vessels, such as a chalice used in Mass should not be sold, it should be passed on to priests."
Still, if the Catholic Church cannot place its antiques in other parishes, the Diocese will auction off the items or sell the antiques to a private buyer.
As for personal items, the Diocese believes it is okay to buy and sell Catholic antiques as long as the items are regarded with respect.
Indeed, Michael Britt, a Kansas City antiques dealer at River Market Antiques, holds Catholic antiques in high regard, in part, because he grew up in the faith. But, Britt said, Catholic antiques also are highly regarded as art.
His religious antiques collection includes ornate last rites boxes, retablos, and paintings on tin, which originated in Spain, and nichos, boxes that contain a religious figurine and often placed along a road in Mexico so travelers can stop and pray.
Britt's' religious antiques include a crucifix, carved in the Black Forest of Germany. The carving, which featured Jesus nailed to the cross, was obtained from a nun's estate and recently sold for $450.
"Some of the finest carvings are religious carvings because they are very dedicated," Britt said. "A lot of those are carved in Switzerland, southern Germany and Italy."
Most of Britt's buyers, whether at the Kansas City antique shop or on the Internet shop at eBay, are drawn to religious antiques for the beauty of their art more than the spirituality of the piece.
"A lot of people use them for decoration that aren't necessarily religious," Britt said. "A lot of gay people are drawn to religious imagery, icons. And, the Catholics have more icons than other religions. The Greek and Russian Orthodox churches — people collect that and other Russian icons. When communism lost its grip on the Soviet Union, a lot of icons came from Russia. Icons are beautiful things, often worked in gold and silver."
Purdue University Galleries has what is believed to be one of the largest Orthodox Christian icon collections in the United States. The permanent collection will be on exhibit through December 3 at the Indiana University.
The exhibit, "Spirit Made Tangible: The Scheuring Icon Collection", features 132 Russian and Ethiopian icons dating from the 17th century. A gift from Katherine Scheuring, the Orthodox icons portray Christian figures such as Jesus, the Virgin Mary, saints and martyrs as well as scenes in the Old Testament.
"These icons are used for spiritual communication with the subject of the icon, but all are special to the Eastern Orthodox Church," said David Parrish, a history professor in Purdue's department of visual and performing arts.
"There are various branches, but historically its center was in Constantinople. Today it’s Istanbul. (As) the capital of the Byzantine Empire — it was a Christian Greek-speaking empire that spread through Turkey, Greece and later into north Bulgaria, Russia and as far west as the Balkans. It was a large empire and fell to Muslim invaders in 1453."
The icon collection is highly revered for its art forms, such as the Russian icons, which are covered in delicate layers of silver so the image beneath stands out. The icons, made of the technique that allow for tiny holes to be cut into the silver plating, reveal the faces and hands of the figurines. Other techniques include tempera painting on wood, low relief carvings on wood, or made of cast metal such as brass. Some are made of a mosaic technique with tiny fragments of stone and glass embedded on a wood surface.
The collection is considered a rare exhibit of icons because many Russian Orthodox churches closed with the Soviet Union regime, and because of the artistic techniques and traditions used in making the icons, Parrish said.
"They are beautifully made," Parrish said. "The fineness of the presentation, in traditional Byzantine arts, the eyes may be emphasized to bring out the sacred nature of the figure. So not only do you get great aesthetic pleasure but you learn a great deal about the Orthodox faith...It's a religious nature you don't see every day. These are works of art made of great conviction by artists steeped in tradition."
While the Purdue University icon collection is regarded for its art and Orthodox history, the collection also likely holds a spiritual appeal to some observers.
Daniel Stramara, Junior, who recently gave a lecture on early Christian art at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, said icons, especially Orthodox icons are believed to be endowed with God's presence.
"Early 400 onward, there's the idea the work of art — it could be cloth, icons, paintings, carvings — that it has within it a divine energy, a divine presence," Stramara said. "Early church thought is that God has power, energy that can be put into objects, localized, a focus point of God's miraculous power."
However, in the West, the religious component of art was dropped in the early 1300s. In the Eastern churches, the religious power of art continued to be portrayed.
"Yes, it's always there, an energy," Stramara said. "Religious art within in the East, like in Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, yes, the icon had God's energy within it. The prayer said over icons when they were painted is almost the same prayer said over bread and wine, the Eucharist, making God present."
That is not to say that within the West, or the United States, religious icons and other antiques do not hold a spirituality.
"In the West, there are people, who individually feel that this object enables them to plug into another dimension," Stramara said.
"It's a marker of a reality that is invisible but that now is made visible within the art. It's a sign, a symbol of something else, a deeper meaning."
THROUGH DEC. 3: "Spirit Made Tangible: The Scheuring Icon Collection", Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 765-496-7899, www.cla.purdue.edu/Galleries/
FEB. 8 - MAY 13, 2007: "The Dead Sea Scrolls", Union Station Kansas City, Kansas City, MO 816-460-2020, www.unionstation.org
> Discover Mid-America Archive Past cover stories