Putting Israeli Art on the Auction Block at Sotheby’s

By Miriam Colton

Published March 12, 2004, issue of March 12, 2004.
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As a patron of contemporary Israeli art and a regular in the high-end scene of Sotheby’s auction house, it seemed inevitable that Rivka Saker would attempt to link the two worlds. Indeed, Saker, the managing director of Sotheby’s Tel Aviv since 1983, is the mastermind behind a weeklong festival of contemporary Israeli art to hit New York this weekend.

The festival, titled Artis: Israeli Art Week in New York, runs from March 12 to 18 and consists of several events designed specifically around the first auction exclusively of Israeli art at the ritzy Upper East Side auction house.

The auction was inspired by the years-long slump in Israel’s tourism. Previously, Sotheby’s Tel Aviv held approximately twice-yearly auctions of Israeli art and Judaica, attracting regular collectors and buyers from abroad. In the wake of the second intifada, though, Saker was finding them harder and harder to run in Israel.

“We felt to bring it out of Israel would create more interest,” said Saker, 54, in an interview with the Forward. Sotheby’s has successfully brought foreign collections from its branch auction houses to New York before, and was therefore happy to give the idea the green light.

Saker, a native of Tel Aviv who studied art at the University of Haifa after serving in the Israeli army, has spent the past several months calling various collectors around the world to gather the 120 works that will go on sale next Thursday, March 18. The featured works, mostly paintings, span the past century and include a selection of works by international Jewish artists.

Saker came up with the idea for a festival of contemporary art while working on the auction, when she noticed that the intended date of the public auction would coincide with the Armory Show, the world’s leading contemporary art fair, where several contemporary Israeli artists would be featured. For an ambitious woman devoted to Israeli art, it was the perfect calendar confluence. Almost immediately, she set out to organize additional events around the auction and Armory Show, and her effort burgeoned into a full-fledged Israeli contemporary art festival.

“It was an opportunity to try and create around it more events that will concentrate on contemporary Israeli art,” said Saker.

The festival will include art and photography exhibits, film screenings, performances, a party and a panel discussion featuring art experts.

Saker believes that a new global identification with the situation in Israel, particularly after 9/11, is at the root of what she describes as a fledgling international interest in Israeli art. Though she has no idea how many people will turn out for the Artis events, all open to the public, she is hopeful that they will attract large crowds.

“I think in the last decade the world has been living around a lot of problems that Israel is accustomed to,” she said. “Issues that Israeli artists have been dealing with are suddenly becoming interesting all over the world.”

In the spirit of Artis, the Sotheby’s sale will feature many contemporary works.

“There is a growing interest in contemporary art and I felt it would be a good time to include the contemporary group in the Sotheby’s sale,” said Saker, who currently divides her time between Tel Aviv and Manhattan.

For a woman who sits on the boards of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra Foundation, the Israeli documentary film festival Docaviv and the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, the most exciting component of the upcoming week is the exposure it grants contemporary artists to the market.

Clearly an art aficionado, Saker is deeply immersed in the business side of art. “If you look back when we started these sales [of Israeli art], if something sold for $30,000 or $40,000, it was a very high price,” she said. “But today some pieces are going for above $100,000.”

The 120 works listed in the auction’s catalog range extensively in price: An abstract painting of the sacrifice of Issac by the modern artist Avigdor Arikha is listed for $5,000 to $7,000, while a painting of Jerusalem from the Old City by Mordecai Ardon (1896-1992) could fetch as much as $120,000.

On the day of the Israeli art auction, Sotheby’s New York also will be holding its famous Judaica auction, featuring manuscripts, silver ritual pieces and paintings, last held in December 2000. Marking the 800th anniversary of the death of Maimonides, the famed Jewish philosopher and scholar, the auction will include a rare 14th-century Spanish manuscript of his seminal work on rabbinic law, the “Mishneh Torah,” one of five existing original manuscripts. The price range listed for the manuscript is between $1 million and $2 million.

Saker ran her own gallery before joining Sotheby’s Tel Aviv and has a personal collection of Israeli art. She hopes that Artis, which is being sponsored by private donors and businesses, will occur regularly in the future.

“I want to help Israeli artists,” she said. “I hope this will expose the great works that are being done in Israel under difficult circumstances.”

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