Sotheby's is settling into its new home, a few weeks after moving from its landmark Tuscan-style villa in central Tel Aviv. The new building at 11 Yehuda Halevi, an early 1920s eclectic style house, is also slated for preservation. Moving from Israel's art center to the nearby and upcoming financial district was simply practical - the lease had expired. Still, the new location can be said to signify a new era.
That Israeli art is making greater strides in the international markets is in part driven by the changing strategy of the local Sotheby's. Nowadays, it is less auction house and more advocate of Israeli art as a commodity.
Until recent years, Israeli artists were not well known or widely sold or represented abroad. At home, even local artists with large followings, like Menashe Kadishman, sell work for relatively low prices, compared to the prices of artists working in Europe and the US. Because of its size and youth, Israel cannot boast dozens of major fine art programs, and only in 2003 did the state's most prominent art school, Bezalel, in conjunction with Hebrew University, begin an accredited master's program for the fine arts curriculum.
"In the 1970s there started to be international interest in Israel, but this had no impact whatsoever on the value of work. There were Israelis in international exhibitions here and there, but maybe only two were represented by [a top gallery in New York]," said Rivka Saker, chairwoman of Sotheby's Israel and senior director of Sotheby's Europe.
When Saker helped set up shop for Sotheby's in Tel Aviv in 1984 as a trial run and later organized the office's first auction in 1985 at the Jerusalem Hilton, she was skeptical.
Until that time, when both Sotheby's and Christie's set up small satellite auction houses in Tel Aviv, Israel was a foreigner to the auction world and its art world was still considered quite small.
Many of the local gallery owners and dealers, in uncharted territory and used to the casualness of life here, showed up to Sotheby's Judaica auction with the work they represented stuffed into suitcases. "They approached people making bids and invited them up to hotel rooms to show them the stuff in their bags," said Saker. "Now that was funny."
Despite the unconventional auction environment, the Judaica sale was an overwhelming success. "Auctions usually sell 70 percent-80%," said Saker. "But we sold 99%. Only one lot was not sold. It was amazing."
In 1987, the first art auction sold works by Israeli and Jewish artists, traditional landscapes, colorful street scenes and portraits of local residents, dated only through the 1960s, said Saker. The Israeli lot brought in less than $200,000.
The small roster of Israeli artists grew slowly over the next 15 years to include both traditional and contemporary works; and by 2003, Sotheby's was bringing in over $1 million in Israeli art sales. While this was considered a large amount at the time, it was very modest compared to the prices of contemporary and post-war works at auction in Europe and the US. The time was not ripe for collectors here, even though the art market was maturing. Economically, and in terms of tourism and therefore foreign collectors, Israel in 2003 had not yet started to recover from the intifada.
But since Sotheby's Israel branch took its contemporary Israeli art sales to auction in New York in 2004, Israeli art sales have soared. In the first NY sale, totals were over $2,669,000. Since, the total annual sales continue to multiply: $4,037,100 in 2005; $6,075,460 in 2006; and $9,856,288 in 2007. Annual Judaica totals also shot up from more than $1 million in 2003 in Tel Aviv to annual sales in New York of $4m.-$5.6m.
Saker explains that new buyers are pushing up prices for sought after works, more popular as Israeli art gets more exposure and as local themes have greater relevance to international buyers.
"Israeli art has become particularly relevant in light of events that have shaken the West in the recent past," she said. "Immigration, borders, terrorism and the clash of cultures - issues that have lately exploded into the Western consciousness - have been the Israeli reality for a long time."
The coming of age of Israeli art is also due to other reasons, she contends, in that more Israelis are pursuing MFA degrees here and abroad and more local curators are invited to participate in major art events overseas.
That Sotheby's started to publish greater numbers of its Israeli art catalogues - now around 6,000 per auction - and distribute them to Jewish and other collectors worldwide has also encouraged collectors to buy into the international trend to acquire works representing other cultures.
LIKE ISRAEL, other countries across the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere are also seeing their artists break into international markets. It's true that Sotheby's strategy has been to open new offices in emerging markets.
But a huge and unique influence reaching out to Jewish and other ethnic-art collectors abroad has been Saker's pet project, Artis, which she launched the same time as the New York auction of Israeli art. Saker founded the nonprofit Artis to support and highlight contemporary local artists abroad through lectures, exhibitions and events. These happenings, termed "Israeli art week," culminated just before Sotheby's Israel art auction and during New York's annual spring art and auction season, when collectors, curators, patrons and the press are already in town. Other events also happen year round.
Saker's influence extends to her close advisory role with Bezalel's MFA program and as a trustee of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Center for Contemporary Art, the Association of Israel's Decorative Arts and the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Her original partners in helping found Sotheby's Israel also make their mark on the local art world. Alexis Gregory, the art collector, historian and publisher sent by Sotheby's in 1983 to survey the local art scene and approve the Sotheby's opening here, today serves as a Sotheby's board member and is honorary chairman of the Israel Museum and executive committee member of its American Friends organization. Daniella Luxembourg, who helped found Sotheby's Tel Aviv, is now an influential private dealer.
By the end of last year, three years after Artis and the Sotheby's New York sale of Israeli art was firmly in place, Sotheby's combined Israeli art sales for 2007 at nearly $10 million broke its own and Christie's annual records for Israeli art. Sotheby's next large-scale sale of Israeli and Jewish artists and Judaica in New York will take place in December, with a pre-auction exhibition in Israel in the fall, to be announced.
"There are no plans [for] auctions here. Moving them to New York was the right thing. We'll continue to be a sourcing office, cultivating local artists and collectors, assisting Israeli buyers at global auctions and exporting art from Israel," says Michelle Pollak, the co-managing director.
That roughly 25% of the artists now showing works at the Israel Museum's 10-year retrospective of modern Israeli art also exhibit internationally is a first for a major local exhibition and is a testament to this new era.
Photographer Adi Nes - known for depicting boys and men in vulnerable situations and now showing the "Last Supper" photograph of Israeli soldiers positioned like the original Da Vinci at the Israel Museum - broke all auction records for a local contemporary artist last year. The last available print of "Last Supper" sold at Sotheby's for $264,000.
Sotheby's now also holds auction records for artists Nachum Gutman, Yehezkel Streichmann, Joseph Zaritsky, Arieh Aroch, Lea Nikel, Anna Ticho, Moshe Kupferman and Yohanan Simon.
The Nes sale, relevant to mention though, was considered a "stand alone" price, both for his own auction records, which are a bit lower, and those of other Israelis, which range from approximately $20,000-$75,000. In the retail market, a very few Israelis, like video and mixed media artist Michal Rovner, have brought in well over the Nes high price. "It's hard to sell videos and large scale installations at auction," explains Pollak.
Even so, the real Israeli record-breakers continue to be the old school painters like Reuven Rubin and Mordechai Ardon.
Rubin's highest sale at Sotheby's was $442,500 for his 1929 "Old Sycamores" and $419,200 and $329,000 for two others of his works from this period. Rubin's highest sale at Christie's was $623,000 for "Old Sycamore Trees." Ardon is the highest selling Israeli artist, whose 1963 "Timepecker" sold for $643,200 at Christie's.
Saker attributes the continued popularity of such works to rarity and sentimentality for scenes of an Israel that has "disappeared." Still, Israel's art stars don't compete with the international art market darlings. Sotheby's just broke all art auction records in May 2008 with a Francis Bacon triptych selling for $86.3 million. Works by Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Warhol and Rothko have all passed the $60 million mark.
SOTHEBY'S HEADQUARTERS has always tried new markets and approaches to selling. When Englishman Samuel Baker in 1744 opened an auction house to trade in book and libraries, he likely didn't know his regular clients would soon become royalty and fame. After his nephew John Sotheby took over in 1778, the auctions became more and more dramatic, especially when they sold such works as Napoleon's library in 1823 and Robert Browning's love letters in 1913. When Sotheby's moved from London's Wellington Street to the more artsy Bond Street in 1917, it kicked off a new era of unsurpassed sales in new markets of fine arts and antiquities and selling beyond the auction hall.
In 1955, Sotheby's launched its New York headquarters, where once again it blossomed, having taken advantage of the growing interest in impressionist and modernist paintings. At the company's first major painting sale in 1958, 1400 dignitaries, art dealers and enthusiasts in black tie made auction history, buying the lot of seven paintings in 21 minutes.
Israel's auction roots were not quite as theatrical, but hopes remain cautiously high that Israeli art works will continue to shatter auction records.
"Before we started [Sotheby's in Israel] three Israelis sold internationally - Rubin, Ardon and Janco. At our first art auction we had seven Israeli artists. Now we have [sold] 150," said Saker. "In the future, there will be more Israeli collectors who will collect in a more serious way, and the prices for Israeli works will go higher. The market is growing and changing and a lot of galleries are looking to add Israeli artists to their stables."
It is a new era for Israeli art, said Saker. "But will [these artists sell at auction for] 80 million? No."
On the block for ALS
The next auction in Israel on June 24 is a fund-raiser for IsrALS, the local organization benefiting sufferers of the degenerative disease ALS. A selection of the 51 Israeli paintings, prints, photographs and sculptures from the 1920s until now are on exhibition prior to the auction, through June 23 at the new offices (closed Sundays).
Curated by Nurit Tal-Tenne, works ranging from a Reuven Rubin watercolor to a Micha Baram Yom Kippur War photograph and many contemporary works, with low bid estimates from $500-$20,000, will sell in two separate lots. Artists Aliza Olmert, Zvi Lachman, Igael Tumarkin, Menashe Kadishman, David Reeb and Jan Rauchwerger, and galleries, collectors and businesses, including Bank Discount, fully or partially donated the works.
The first 28 lots will sell at a private home by invitation, while 23 lots will sell in a silent auction, open from now until that evening at 10 p.m.
For directions on participating in the live or silent auctions by phone or Internet, a catalogue and instructions are online at IsrALS.org or by calling Sotheby's at (03) 560-1666 for information.
"Charity sales are always successful," says Sigal Mordechai, co-managing