When Amitai Hazan Tiroche picks up his hammer on January 25, the third-generation art auctioneer will be selling dozens of Israeli artworks, including a long-missing Chagall oil depicting the biblical Jacob and the angels’ ladder of his dreams.
The 22×27 centimeter (8.7×10.6 inch) depiction of the biblical story was painted by Chagall in deep, dramatic colors around 1973, when Israel was fighting and then recovering from the Yom Kippur War.
“It was a tiny one, it was easy to steal,” said Hazan Tiroche.
Chagall’s “Jacob’s Ladder” was stolen from Tel Aviv’s Gordon Gallery in 1996, four days before an auction at which it was slated to be sold. It remained missing until fairly recently, when a Jerusalem family reported finding it unexpectedly in their mother’s storage room after she died.
The woman’s family reportedly knew nothing about the painting’s existence. After it was handed in to the police, and then identified and verified by a team of Chagall experts, it was handed over to an insurance company that then worked with Tiroche, the family-run auction house in Herzliya Pituah that often finds itself handling items with murky histories.
(The original seller, a private client who consigned the painting to Gordon, received the insurance funds back in 1997, said Hazan Tiroche.)
Tiroche specializes in items with complicated backstories, including the boots that George Bush gave former prime minister Ariel Sharon, the signed peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, and David Ben-Gurion’s passport. And of course, paintings and drawings created by scores of Israeli artists.
When 35-year-old Hazan Tiroche stands behind his podium on January 25, he will auction off the Chagall, as well as several other crucial pieces from Israel’s art-filled history, including Reuven Rubin’s “Jaffa” and “Spring in the Galilee,” two romantic paintings with a naive, almost primitive sensibility that was typical of works from the 1920s.
Rubin’s “Jaffa” — which national poet Haim Nahman Bialik called a kind of midrash agada, or mythical retelling of Jewish tradition — has never before been displayed publicly. Also on the block at the Tiroche auction are Nachum Gutman’s “Synagogue” and Yochanan Simon’s “Figures in the Kibbutz,” two other iconic paintings.
Hazan Tiroche spent most of the last six months negotiating for these paintings, which may hark from a more innocent time in Israel’s past, but could draw as much as $400,000 to $600,000 per painting.
He loves all the details of the paintings that come through his auction house, talking about them as he walks around the rooms, glancing closely at one painting, touching the frame of another.
“These are not the kinds of paintings you find all the time,” he said. “We’re happy they chose to sell with us.”
Hazan Tiroche grew up in this business, gaining an education in art — Israeli art in particular — from his grandfather, Jean Tiroche, a Polish Jew who fought with the partisans before escaping to Paris and went into the antiques business before coming to Israel around 1948.
His grandfather, who died when Hazan Tiroche was 22, taught the business to his son, Mickey Tiroche, and his son-in-law, Dov Hazan (Hazan Tiroche’s father), who worked together for many years before splitting up and taking over different parts of the work of agenting and selling art.
Now the grandson, Hazan Tiroche (Hazan is his father’s name, Tiroche is his mother’s), runs the business with his father and sister, Galia Hazan Tiroche.
On most days, they sit at a desk or couches set in the midst of an enormous gallery, the bottom floor of an unassuming building in upscale Herzliya Pituah north of Tel Aviv, surrounded by dozens of artworks.
The walls are currently being hung with the paintings to be sold in the upcoming auction; there’s a piece by Igael Tumarkin, known for his complicated, collage-like work, beside one by Zoya Cherkassky, a Russian-Israeli artist who recently had a solo exhibit at the Israel Museum.
Hazan and his father usually split the five to six hours of auctioneering, handling the seated audience as well as online bidders.
The website offers the entire catalog, each artwork photographed and put online for buyers from the US, Australia, Hong Kong and elsewhere. While online bidding is a lively process — Tiroche sold their most expensive painting during the last auction for $30,000 to a bidder who was getting into a cab — they still love the buzz of a full house when the hall is at capacity with some 500 people.
“Most people still come because it’s an evening, it’s a benchmark of the industry, and people want to be here,” he said. “But if 200 people are here, 400 people are online. The internet changes everything.”
It’s far different from when his grandfather, Jean Tiroche, began the business.
He opened the first art gallery in Old Jaffa, eventually living in the port city, where members of the family still reside.
The family business grew, and Jean Tiroche became an art agent with offices in New York and Miami. The auction side of the business began in 1992.
Hazan Tiroche’s entire family lived and breathed the business, and he remembers spending time as a child in art museums in Europe with his grandfather and creating auctions at home with his sister to sell their crayon creations. He and his sister also licked the envelopes for the invitations to the very first Tiroche auction.
He didn’t think he would enter the business, but then he filled in once for his father as auctioneer, just as the local art industry was shifting to greater price tags from the sales of some major Israeli collectors.
The 2010 sale of artworks from the collection of diplomat and former Coca-Cola Israel scion Ami Brown was a turning point. “It just broke all heights,” he said. “There were well known works, but there was buzz and hype too, and it changed the pricing on Israeli art.”
There are more Israeli art collectors now, and many would rather buy in Israel than from collections or auctions out of the country, said Hazan Tiroche. In recent years, the auction house began to sell international artists as well, for local clients who don’t want to travel abroad to purchase.
Tiroche now has an online auction every two weeks, drawing some younger collectors and buyers, who start small. The larger sales bring in well-known names, including oligarchs, Israeli CEOS, and other people of means who can buy a $100,000 painting without any trouble, said Hazan Tiroche.
“We didn’t make up this game, this is how it is everywhere,” he said. “We try to find the balance between appreciating artwork and the cost of buying it.”
As for Chagall’s “Jacob’s Ladder,” he’s looking forward to that sale on Saturday night, January 25.
“Who knows?” he said. “Maybe someone will come forward with some information about where it’s been for the last 24 years.”