Nostalgia sparking a craze for early Israeli collectibles

JERUSALEM — Is a hubcap worth saving? You bet. Especially if it has a map of Israel etched into it and the Hebrew date Iyar 6, 1948, the day after the establishment of the state of Israel. Although it's an offbeat souvenir, a hubcap like that was sold recently for $600.

Nostalgia, it appears, is creating a new market for 50th anniversary memorabilia.

The hubcap, whose creator is unknown, was sold by Jason Feld, a former Los Angeles lawyer who is now the proprietor of the Colors of Jerusalem in the Old City. Feld's interest in art began in law school, when he used to roam galleries in Los Angeles. Since making aliyah with his wife and children, he has been a major force behind the promotion of new Ethiopian and Russian immigrant artists. Now he's turning to nostalgia.

"With the jubilee birthday, I decided to bring some early posters into the gallery," he said. "There was such a wonderful response that I decided to look for other historical pieces." He found the hubcap on one of his forays.

"Ancient Jewish history is recorded in the Bible and artifacts can be seen in a museum," said Feld. "But these pieces are records of modern Jewish history."

Remember the once-ubiquitous Jewish National Fund blue boxes? Now these are a popular collectible. JNF boxes from the late 1920s show the location of agricultural settlements such as Emek Yisrael. These have handles and are larger than post-state boxes because they were used for soliciting in public places. In 1949, Israel's flag flew on the blue box for the first time and the artwork showed the entire Negev. Aqaba is marked at the southernmost tip, but Eilat did not yet exist. Feld sells the early blue box for $375 and the later one for $225.

Among the gallery's lower-priced collectibles are picture postcard-illustrated LPs that sell for $35 — one shows a young couple looking over the Yizreel Valley; another, youngsters dancing the hora on the shores of the Kinneret — and a Mitzi fruit-juice poster tagged at $85.

Written in Hebrew and English, the 1930s-era WIZO cookbook contains charming illustrations and tips on "How to Cook in Palestine."

The cover of the first Hebrew comic book, published in December 1947, showed Mickey Mouse lighting a Chanukah menorah. On the cover are two signs carried by children. The one in the background reads "A Great Miracle Happened Here"; the one in the foreground reads "A Great Miracle Will Happen Here."

"Israeli posters from the early years of the state are on a par with the best international poster art," said Linda Feinberg, a researcher for the Jerusalem gallery. A graphic plea for airplanes, "Send Us Planes," appears on a poster from the 1940s, when the provisional government tried to put together an air force. A pilot dressed in a bomber jacket and goggles points to the sky. The poster sells for about $2,000.

Commercial posters from the state's early years reflect a youthful, innocent spirit. A classic advertisement for Mitzi, one of Israel's largest producers of fruit juice and jams, has the clean lines of the '50s. A young girl with bangs drinks from five different bottles of Mitzi drinks, with the caption: "There is nothing like them."

In early May, to mark Israel's 50th birthday and 100 years of Zionism, the prestigious London auction house Sotheby's staged a series of four auctions in Israel of early Israeli collectibles. Included were plates, children's books, toys, games, posters, plaques and medals. A set of official government posters from all of Israel's Independence Day celebrations was also auctioned.

Many children's books were illustrated by artists from Bezalel, the Jewish homeland's first art school. One of the most famous illustrators was Zeev Raban (1890-1970). Incredibly talented and prolific, he made sculpture, jewelry, stained-glass windows, decorative copper doors for local banks and hospitals, as well as playing cards, posters and books. His work carries price tags ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

"In the 1930s, Professor Boris Schatz, Bezalel's visionary founder, opened a group of workshops next to the school," said Rivka Saker, Sotheby's manager in Israel. Crafts on hand included silver filigree, handmade carpets and olivewood boxes.

"British soldiers stationed here and looking for gifts to take home were some of the biggest purchasers," Saker said.

Sotheby's auctioned offerings of "Israeliana" and other items preceding Israel's birth will probably range in price from $300 to $50,000.

The new market for Israeli collectibles is prodding people to rummage through their closets.

Stamps issued during Israel's first year tell an interesting story. Doar Ivri (Hebrew Mail) was the name printed on the first stamps officially issued on May 16, 1948.

"They were printed in secret before the state was proclaimed," said Ozer Rotenberg, a Jerusalem-based stamp and documents dealer. Illustrated with images of ancient Jewish coins, the stamps were designed by well-known graphic designer Auto Wallish.

"There were many mistakes in printing this first batch of stamps," said Rotenberg. "Depending on the tab, perforation, mounting and condition, they sell from $6,000 to $22,000. Some collectors only collect this issue."

Three cities under siege — Rishon LeZion, Jerusalem and Safed — issued their own stamps. For glue, Safed used potato starch on its stamps.

The first stamps that actually had "Israel" printed on them were issued in September 1948 for the High Holy Days.

Stamps, posters, dolls, games, newspapers, photographs, collection boxes, comic books — the treasure hunt is on for anything that recaptures the spirit of idealism and innocence that characterized Israel's early years.