In a positive frame of mind

At an auction at the end of the month, North American Jews will be looking to art as an investment in these troubled economic times.

ludwig blum jerusalem painting 248 88 (photo credit: )
ludwig blum jerusalem painting 248 88
(photo credit: )
If you thought that art in Jerusalem meant faded posters of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, think again. According to experts in the trade, Israel is becoming an increasingly popular destination for buyers and sellers in the world of fine art, a trend given an unexpected boost in recent months by the global financial crisis. At the heart of the action is a gallery in central Jerusalem to which North American Jews have been turning in the hope that paintings will lend a helping hand to remedy their economic woes. While some are seeking to convert their artwork into cash, others with cash to spare are on the lookout for an investment that is more reliable than plummeting stocks and shares. But whether they are buying or selling, more eyes will be turning to Jerusalem later this month when a fine art auction takes place in the city. "Every case has its own special reason, but I feel that in the last few months there is much, much more compared to the past. A large number of people are bringing art to Israel to sell," says Lucien Krief, owner of the Lucien Krief Gallery on King David Street. "There are people in financial trouble," adds gallery manager Uri Rosenbach as Mane Katz's portrait of a rabbi holding aloft a golden Torah scroll illuminates the wall behind him. "But it's not an issue that if you don't sell something, then you won't have money to eat. People want as much liquid assets as possible." But the Jerusalem gallery is not just attracting Jews seeking to save money for a rainy day. Uncertainty on the global economic horizon, combined with the relative stability of the Israeli economy, is also attracting investors to Israel. "One client said he wanted to buy an impressionist painting for $1 million, maximum this size," says Rosenbach, drawing in the air a picture frame no larger than the size of his head. Why? 'Because I want to be able to put it into a briefcase if I have to run,' he said. That's the advantage of a painting; it's very transferable, it crosses borders. These are people whose parents fled from Eastern Europe and packed their bags in the middle of the night," he adds, citing both economic woes and the inauguration of a new American president as sources of anxiety for some Jews overseas. But regardless of whether such fears are founded, a level of uncertainty remains that compels some Jews to invest in alternative assets. "The more things change, the more they stay the same," says Rosenbach. "There are many reasons that people prefer working here [in Israel], including the exchange rate. A painting sold here is much cheaper compared to a few years ago. We have been successful in selling pieces that have not been sold in other countries," explains Rosenbach, adding that Israel's central location, between Europe and Asia, is also an asset. Despite the economic shockwaves still coursing through North America, Europe and beyond, Israel appears to be holding up well against the financial meltdown. "People have a lot of trust in the Israeli economy. Even though there may have been some problems, I don't think that anybody has fears in the Israeli banks. At least that's the feeling we've been getting," continues Rosenbach. "What's been happening recently with the whole [financial] mess is that I've been selling paintings that I could give to Sotheby's or Christie's in London. Of course, Sotheby's and Christie's are a lot bigger than us, but when you put your money in Barclays Bank, who is to know if they will still be around in a few months' time? We have clients in Poland who want to buy paintings but they can't, the banks won't transfer. It's not that they don't have the money, they can't physically transfer it." Although the economic crisis might make spenders more cautious when it comes to such pleasures as tourism, citing a rise in holiday cancelations at Succot, Rosenbach is optimistic that it is less likely to put a dent in sales of art in Israel. "It's a different type of money: saving and spending. We're anticipating that people are will say, 'I'm going to take my money out of A and put it into B,' with B being art," he says. Krief adds that a trend of buying fine art as a sound financial investment has already existed for several years. "For example, I have a client in Holland who read that art was a good investment six years ago, so he sold all his stocks and bought art instead. I think he would have lost his stocks if he had kept them." But regardless of whether your stocks and shares are paying dividends or taking a nose dive, dabbling in fine art does not come cheap. Anyone wanting to take home a painting of Jerusalem's unique skyline to remind them of the Holy Land should be prepared to dig deep. Nachum Gutman's 1960 abstract representation of Jerusalem's Old City, complete with multicolored hills looming over a turquoise Dome of the Rock, is a snip at an estimate of at least $120,000. But it's a price well worth paying according to the people who have registered their interest in the upcoming auction organized by the gallery's sister company, MatsArt auctioneers and appraisers. The gallery owners claim that the event on November 30 is the first time a fine art auction is to be held in Jerusalem. It is expected to draw hundreds of bidders in person and many more via telephone and the Internet from across the world. In the past, the gallery has two or three annual auctions in Tel Aviv, but hopes to hold them in Jerusalem from now on. The venue, the prestigious King David Hotel just footsteps away from the gallery itself, is well accustomed to hosting foreign visitors, typically politicians and dignitaries. But this month's guest of honor is already getting art lovers excited: an 1877 painting by Camille Pissarro, estimated at $700,000 to $900,000, marking the first time a work by the French Impressionist painter is to be sold at auction in Israel. Although there is little explicitly Jewish content in Pissarro's painting of a French peasant woman, most of the 230-plus lots at the auction are by Israeli or Jewish artists, including Reuven Rubin and Menashe Kadishman. Many of the works deal with Jewish themes and depict scenes from the Land of Israel, reflecting Krief's own passion for combining art and his Jewish roots. TRADING IN paintings might not be the most usual profession for Orthodox Jews, but Krief and Rosenbach see no contradiction between their vocation and being religiously observant. "There is no restriction in Judaism for dealing with art. Of course, there are things to do with nudity and Christianity that are prohibited, so we don't deal with those," says Rosenbach, dressed traditionally in a plain long-sleeved shirt with the white strings of his tzitzit trailing down the sides of his black trousers. The pair maintain that a widely cited biblical verse, which apparently commands against making sculptures to prohibit idol worship, should not be taken literally as a commandment forbidding all forms of art: "Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Exodus, 20:4). Whether it's a religious choice or simply a matter of taste, Rosenbach believes that sculptures interest Jews much less than painting. There are not many graven images in Krief's gallery, where the collection includes metal candelabra set in stone to form larger-than-life menoras, as well as twisting metalwork shofar horns crafted by Krief himself, who started his career as an artist. Growing up in a traditional Jewish family in France, Krief picked up the paintbrush at the age of six and, despite not being accepted by Jerusalem's acclaimed Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, continued to fulfill his passion after settling in Israel in 1978. These days he prefers crisp suits and ties to artist's overalls after "stepping into the other side" of the art world a decade ago. "I came here to build a concept of Jewish art," he says, adding that he was unimpressed when the interviewer at Bezalel began to ask him about conceptual artists like Henri Matisse, who were too secular for Krief's taste. "They [Bezalel] didn't accept me because I didn't fit their criteria. I'm glad because I knew I wanted to do something that has a relationship with our roots."