Rare Hart Family Documents to be Auctioned

Nov. 9, 2020


A rare cache of historic documents from Canada’s storied Hart family, among the first Jews to settle in what became Canada, is coming up for auction on Nov. 12 in New York.

The 60 legal documents to go under the hammer of the Brooklyn auction house Kestenbaum & Company relate to Aaron Hart, who arrived in Quebec in 1760, and his four sons, Moses, Ezekiel, Benjamin and Alexander.

Aaron Hart settled in Trois-Rivières and became a wealthy businessman, starting in fur trading and expanding to real estate and a wholesale store. He helped found the Shearith Israel synagogue (now the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue) in Montreal in 1768.

His son Ezekiel was notably elected three times to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, from 1807 to 1809, but was prevented from taking the seat because the oath of office included the phrase “on the true faith of a Christian.”

The manuscripts, in English and French, date from 1790 to 1805 and concern lawsuits, in which the Harts were generally plaintiffs, and a dispute between Ezekiel and his brothers over extra payments from his father’s estate. The auction house estimates they will fetch between $8,000 and $12,000 (U.S.)

“This collection serves as a veritable treasure trove of information on the Hart family, who can arguably be described as the first Jewish family to really establish roots in Canada,” Massye Kestenbaum, a cataloguer for the auction house, said in an email to the CJR.

The collection is unusual because few documents from this era in Canadian Jewish history have surfaced, Kestenbaum said.

“Despite the important roles many Jews assumed in Canada once the British took control, there is a startling paucity of scholarship on the Canadian Jewry during this period,” he related. “Part of that is simply due to there not being an overwhelming number of primary sources on the subject matter, especially this early in the history of Canadian Jewry.”

The documents, which are in a “generally good condition,” were originally in the care of Judge James Reid (1769-1848), the Hart family’s lawyer. They then passed to Robert Deveaux Woodruff Band (1927-2013), a collector of things related to Canadian history, Kestenbaum said.

The auction house has sold a few other Canadian Jewish artifacts over the years but none dating as far back as the Hart papers, Kestenbaum said.

Canadian institutions and private collectors have expressed interest in the collection. But unfortunately, the Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives in Montreal won’t be bidding on the materials, said Janice Rosen, archives director.

“We don’t have purchasing budgets,” she said. “Obviously, $12,000 U.S. isn’t going to happen.”

While the archives have photocopies of some documents from the Hart family, “we have very little original information that goes back that far,” she said.

It is hard to tell how significant the papers are, she said. “Maybe they won’t tell us a lot of new things, but if [there’s] a will, it may be interesting.”

Ultimately, the best place for the documents is a government-run archives, where they can be properly preserved and made available to researchers, Rosen said.

Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, which oversees the Jacob M. Lowy collection of rare Judaica and Hebraica, said in a statement that it is aware of the upcoming sale, but “as in all such cases, LAC will not be commenting publicly on whether it intends to take part in the auction or not.”