Collecting: Faith or Religion?

andy warhol sin no more

This black and white acrylic painting by Andy Warhol sold for $675,000 at Sotheby’s in 2015.

Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism are the top five religions in the world today encompassing about 75% of believers around the world. Yet there are about 4,200 distinctive religions or subsets that include Taoism, Shintoism, those of folk, animism, Gnostics, and a variety of more indigenous beliefs, according to reference.com.  With so many religions being practiced, is collecting religion more of a matter of faith?

A general definition of religion (as opposed to faith) is one “…that relates humanity to the supernatural or transcendental,” according to Wikipedia. While faith might be defined as what you personally believe, religion would be the outward expression of that faith through writings, physical structures, clothing, music, art, glassware, and other objects with special imagery from the ancient to the modern.

So, is collecting artifacts representing the “supernatural” or the “transcendental” only for those with a personal faith or can it also be for the investment? Perhaps artist Andy Warhol can answer that with an auction of his black and white acrylic rendering, shown in the photo above, of the words “Repent and Sin No More.” Considered religious throughout his life, the painting sold for $675,000 at Sotheby’s in 2015. Was it collected because of the famous painter or for the religious message it conveyed? Why can’t it be both?

 

japanese buddha structure

This gilt and lacquer hand carved wooden Buddha from the Japanese Edo period c. 1600 sold for $25,000.  It stood at just over 7 feet tall and 5 feet wide.

Other expressions of the major religions can be found at auction such as a gilt and lacquer hand carved wooden Buddha from the Japanese Edo period c. 1600 that sold for $25,000 and stood at just over 7 feet tall and 5 feet wide.  A large expression of faith to be sure.  Much more manageable are a set of bound vellum Christian gospels from 11th century Constantinople in Greek that sold for $220,000 at Sotheby’s in 2016 and a 16th century carefully hand scripted Torah parchment scroll that sold at auction in 2007 for $50,000.  A machine embroidered remnant from the covering of the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudia Arabia that features Islamic script in gold and silver filigree on cotton and Italian silk, sold at auction for $6,000 in 2013. These are expressions of faith that might be given a sacred place of honor in the home.

 

gospels in greek

A set of bound vellum Christian gospels from 11th century Constantinople in Greek sold for $220,000 at Sotheby’s in 2016.

kaaba covering

A machine embroidered remnant from the covering of the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudia Arabia sold at auction for $6,000 in 2013.

But it turns out that religious artifacts have a design purpose as well. Abbie Francis of the Old Chicago Antique Market in Fountain Valley, CA said that “[Church] pews are often shortened and used as benches on porches, in hallways or at tables,” according to a 1994 article in the Los Angeles Times on designer trends. She says that a church pulpit was bought and turned into a home bar. Today, we call that re-purposing, part of the recycling trend for older furniture. All manner of religious artifacts from crosses, steeples, prayer rugs, bells, pediments, doorways, lighting fixtures, stained glass windows, clothing, coverlets, flags, and the items used for the service itself all provide a number of different and pleasing design arrangements – and conversation starters, I’m sure.

tibetan bell

Tibetan brass bronze altar bell sold for $13.50 in 2008.

And then there is the cultural identity of time and place that collectors would love to feel a connection to. “The natural tendency is to trace one’s ancestry; not even revolution can take that desire away,” says Judith Miller, a British antiquities expert in an article by the Christian Science Monitor in 2008. She may have been referring to the Russian Revolution, for example, where emigres and later generations collect Russian Eastern Orthodox religious icons to give them a cultural and familial touchstone they weren’t allowed to have for nearly 75 years.  Any decorative Russian icon can be easily collected for $100-$200 or so and there are quite a few more modern reproductions for even less.

A lot of everyday items of religion are more accessible and inexpensive. Islamic prayer beads, for example, can be found easily, particularly early bakelite versions, for $20 to $50.  Christian rosaries, a type of prayer bead, are very similar and can be found to be made of all manner of material from wood to pearls.  

More outward signs of a religion are its statues, particularly ones of painted plaster of Paris or gypsum items, known as chalkware, used primarily to depict mostly Christian religious figures from the late 18th century through the 1930s, and then from the 1950s to 1970s where they are called mid-century modern (MCM). Most are in good shape (there will always be flaws in this delicate art) and are very plentiful from $10 to $100 no matter the size with more elaborate vintage items easily being auctioned for $300 – $500.  A wonderful folk art painted Judaica chalkware piece that depicts five rabbis studying the Torah sold at auction for $450, but other Judaica chalkware is available from $10 to $50.

 

five rabbis chalkware

A wonderful folk art painted Judaica chalkware piece that depicts five rabbis studying the Torah sold at auction for $450.

Let’s not forget about the other 4,200 distinctive religions out there. Each has a special image or artifact that also shows their faith as well. Goddess Freya from Norse mythology, for example, is hand carved from one solid piece of birch that was valued at about $1,000; an 1891 Petersyn Witch Fortune Telling tea cup set was sold for $975; a bronze, thousand armed Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist God of Mercy, for $113; and a 1940 Sikh Deity print of Guru Nanak Dev in Blessing Pose for $20.

witch fortune telling tea set

An 1891 Petersyn Witch Fortune Telling tea cup set was sold for $975.

As for books, the Christian Bible has been in continuous print since the earliest complete book was printed in the 2nd century with more than 1400 different translations since then. After Gutenberg printed the Bible as the first book on moveable type in the 1450s, sales have been constant with an estimate of some 5 billion printed.  So, until the King James version was published in 1611, earlier Bibles have a higher auction value. An early King James version of 1640, for example, sold at auction for $4,550 in 2006, but highly decorative and illuminated 19th c Bibles are affordable for about $100 to $200.  

Another example, a first edition of the Book of Mormon of 1830 sold for nearly $80,000 in 2013 while an early 19th c. illuminated Koran from the Ottoman Empire auctions for $3,000 to $5,000. A goat skin Torah from the 17c had an auction value of $2,500 in 2007.  

book of mormon

A first edition of the Book of Mormon of 1830 sold for nearly $80,000 in 2013.

Faith goes where you go.  To transcend to a higher level of consciousness, though, may require the help of an organized religion with its sacred objects and organized social rituals. Whether to show your enlightenment, connect to a culture, made into a pleasing home design, or simply as a long term investment, collecting religion may really just be an outward manifestation of faith after all – just in different ways.


Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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