Editor's Notes: Save the Sycamores

Reuven Rubin helped preserve Tel Aviv's grand trees. Will someone now preserve his painting of them?

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
On a wall of its own in the Rubin Museum, in the painter's former home on Tel Aviv's Bialik Street, hangs a wonderful painting, "Old Sycamore Trees." It was painted in the late 1920s, just five or so years after Reuven Rubin had made his home in Palestine. Immense, improbably elastic trees dominate the canvas, almost dancing across it, blocking out much of the sky, dwarfing an Arab and his camel in the foreground and thoroughly overwhelming the small white houses at the left-hand edge. The trees Rubin so memorably captured are still there, defiantly separating the lanes of traffic on today's bustling King George Street. The painting, however, may soon be gone. Even though it has hung in the museum for some 20 years, Carmela Rubin, the painter's daughter-in-law and the museum's curator, does not include "Old Sycamore Trees" in her catalogue of the permanent collection. For as she explained to me and my spellbound wife and kids when we recently visited the museum, it has been displayed there on a rather unusual, semi-permanent loan. And the arrangement is about to end. The painting had been owned by the Engel art gallery in Jerusalem, Carmela Rubin recounted, and was lent out, together with a second Rubin from the Israel Museum's collection, "The Sea of Galilee," to the Jewish Museum in New York for exhibit in 1982. On the return journey, the two canvases disappeared. They were insured, of course, Carmela continued, as other visitors to the museum gathered to hear the tale, but the Israeli insurers blamed the Americans for the loss, the American insurers blamed the Israelis, and neither paid up. The American government, however, maintains a fund to handle such disputes, and it subsequently stepped in - paying a reported $60,000 to the Israel Museum in compensation for the lost "The Sea" and $80,000 to the Engel Gallery for its disappeared "Sycamores." Five years later, however, "a woman arrived here one day with the two lost paintings," Carmela went on. "She'd purchased them in Jaffa's flea market - for NIS 300." Plainly, the thieves had been unable to more lucratively dispose of their haul. And, plainly, too, the woman had bought rather more than she'd paid for. The unwitting buyer, Zehava Canaan, said in a later interview with Ma'ariv that she realized as much when she took the frames off the paintings at home and found Jewish Museum stickers. "We cleaned off the signature and discovered these were works by Reuven Rubin," Canaan said. "His name didn't mean much to me and I went to an encyclopedia to find out exactly who he was. I thought, 'How much can [they] be worth? A thousand dollars?'" There then ensued almost two decades of legal battling, during which Canaan sought to establish ownership rights in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, where an expanded panel of justices, in a precedent-setting ruling, eventually found for the US government in 2003. Under the terms of its arrangement with the US, the Israel Museum was then given the opportunity to re-purchase "The Sea of Galilee" for the insurance amount it had been paid at the time of its loss, and it promptly did so through an anonymous gift. But the Engel Gallery's terms were different. The gallery's Gavriel Engel told me this week that it had signed a waiver when it was paid the US compensation for the stolen "Sycamores" painting, "and from that point on, we had no further connection with the matter." He explained that his father, who handled the issue, had assumed the painting was gone forever. "The thieves had opened the packaging at Kennedy airport, and carefully selected the two Rubins - the two most prized paintings in the shipment [out of more than two dozen by various artists that were on their way back to Israel]," Engel said. "The paintings then disappeared, and it was only a while later that we were paid the insurance money. Of course, if we'd known the paintings would reappear..." Meanwhile, throughout the legal dispute and beyond, "Sycamores" entranced the passing crowds in what Carmela Rubin would like to think is its natural Tel Aviv home on Bialik Street. Next month, though, the American government is putting its now undisputed asset up for sale. It goes to auction at Christie's in Tel Aviv on April 27, with an estimated sale price of $250,000 to $350,000. Unsurprisingly, Carmela Rubin, a fascinating and perceptive expert on her father-in-law's dazzling work, is deeply sorry to see it go... and hopes a path might yet be found for it to stay in the Rubin Museum. "Tel Aviv is celebrating its 100th anniversary next year," she noted, "and this is an emblematic Tel Aviv painting. It belongs here." It would be such a loss, she said, if it disappeared into a private collection overseas. "Why should a painting like this end up in London or New York? It's almost unthinkable." Carmela said she would not be surprised if the painting sold for beyond its estimate, noting that a similar work went for a record $450,000 at auction a few years ago. But she wondered, rather plaintively, nonetheless, whether some private benefactor might want to step forward at the crucial moment, and secure the painting for Tel Aviv and for its home of the past two decades. When the Israel Museum re-acquired "The Sea of Galilee" five years ago, its director James Snyder spoke of "a story of art loss, with a happy ending." A happy ending is precisely what Carmela Rubin is hoping for, too. At the time that Rubin painted the venerable trees, the Christie's auction press release notes, they lay on "the main route connecting Jaffa with the Yarkon River and the villages of Sumeil and Sheikh-Munis." Carmela's clincher is that when King George Street was being paved, the sycamores were set to be cut down, "and Rubin was at the forefront of the campaign to save them." TO THIS non-expert eye, Reuven Rubin's work often seems to represent a romantic vision of the Israel we'd wish to live in - full of confident pioneers bringing a vital new country to life and yet maintaining a harmony with the land, all of its inhabitants, its traditions and history. Christie's describes this painting as one of his "most idyllic... To the artist, the trees appear heavy, their foliage dense as a forest. The silvery leaves protect and shadow a voyager and his camel. The scene is sensuous and luxuriant, the atmosphere both mystical and nostalgic." An emblematic painting by a legendary, inimitable Zionist painter, of a historic scene that still exists in reality because of his personal efforts, lost to the city in which he made his home as it approaches its centenary? Almost unthinkable, indeed.