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The last year-and-a-half have been difficult for Meir Stern, owner of the Stern Gallery in Tel Aviv and an esteemed art restorer. It began with a suit he filed against Yoav Dagon - director of the Nahum Gutman Museum in Tel Aviv - and Prof. Menachem Gutman, son of artist Nahum Gutman. It ended two weeks ago when Stern agreed to postpone his suit, following the recommendation of Magistrate's Court Judge Yehudit Shevach .

In January 2000, the Matza Gallery was to hold its annual auction. The sales catalog featured the painting "Galilee scene with a road and a figure," attributed to Nahum Gutman and dated to the 1950s. The value was estimated at $30,000-40,000. The painting was put up for sale by Stern.

Around two weeks before the auction, Dagon and Gutman contacted Moti Peled, the auction house manager, claiming the painting was a forgery. Peled took the painting out of the auction. In response, Stern sued Dagon and Gutman for NIS 411,174 to cover the lost value of the painting and the damage to his reputation.

Numerous people from the art world and beyond played a role in the suit. Apart from the statements submitted by Stern, Dagon, and Gutman, the opinions of various experts were also submitted, among them Yigal Tzalmona, the chief curator of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; Prof. Nicholas Isto of London, an internationally renowned expert at determining the age of art works; Leah Ofer, who was the chief art restorer at the Israel Museum, and Devorah Harel, a legal graphologist, who was asked to determine whether the signature on the painting was authentic or forged.

Stern reiterates that the trial ended without the judge having decided anything. He repeats here comments as they appeared in the protocol:

"The court reiterates its comment whereby given the material in the court case, it is having difficulty deciding on the authenticity or lack thereof of the painting in dispute and therefore it recommends to the appellant that he postpone the suit without the court ruling on the authenticity or lack thereof of the disputed painting."

The defendants, in contrast, interpret the judge's recommendation as a victory. "The judge rejected his suit and that means that he won't be able to sue us any more over this painting," says Attorney Eli Shmilevitz, of the law offices of Hamburger, Evron and partners, which represented the defendants.

Stern believes that had he continued, he could have proved his case, but adds: "I realized that this could go on for a long time. I have no doubt that the painting is an original, but I'm 72-years-old, and I just don't have the strength for this."

Stern has been engaged in restoration for more than 40 years. He began his studies in London in the late 1940s, after having survived the Holocaust. This is the first time, he says, that his expertise has ever been questioned. He bought the disputed painting in 1998 from the collector, Meir Agassi, for $12.5 million.

Four years earlier, in 1994, Stern had bought another painting attributed to Gutman from Agassi, a painting that very much resembles the disputed painting, but instead of a figure on the path, there is a car. Why didn't Agassi demand a document certifying the painting's originality? "Most of the paintings from those times don't have receipts," says Stern. "The artists were very afraid of the Income Tax Authority and we didn't expect so many problems to arise."

Stern tried to obtain receipts from Agassi during the trial, but Agassi, according to Stern, stopped answering his calls.

Stern defines a restorer's studio as "a hospital for paintings" and he is undoubtedly committed to his profession and loves it very much. "To be considered a top-notch restorer, the restorer has to be an expert on the artist's work. He has to know his works, his style, the materials he uses, his style of placing colors - a good restorer can even identify how the canvas was stretched and the kinds of nails the artist used," he said in the statement he submitted to the court.

"The knowledge I accumulated about the techniques and styles of artists goes beyond the period and subject of their works," he says. "If in a work by Mane Katz, for example, I don't see the lines created by the pressure exerted with every brush stroke, then there is a possibility that it's a forgery. Regarding Nahum Gutman, he went through different periods during which he changed the style of his paintings, so much so that an untrained person might think it wasn't a painting by Gutman."

With the paintings in his gallery as examples, he goes on to demonstrate the movements that typify the brush strokes of Rubin, Lasser, Ori and others. Stern tries not to cast doubt on the various experts who have presented the court with their opinions, but notes that "all of them mentioned their art-related titles, tried to impress everyone and make them think that they know everything."

Indeed, the opinions submitted to the court by the appellants are very impressive. For example, that of Yigal Tzalmona, who among other things, curated Gutman exhibitions and researched his work for his doctorate on "the east and Israeli art between 1906 and 1940." Tzalmona determines right at the opening of his statement that he has no doubt that the painting is a forgery. He bases his statement on his familiarity with the artist's work, his style and his artistic language. He writes, for example, that "the color scale, the light perception and the way in which the color is placed are completely different in the painting that is the object of the suit, and is contrary to Gutman's style."

Regarding the signature, Tzalmona writes: "The hand that drew the painting in question and the second painting (with the car) cannot be the hand of the artist. The nature of Gutman's line is as different as can be from the crude line with no charm in the picture that is the object of the suit."

The graphologist, Devorah Harel, also said in the opinion she submitted on behalf of the appellants, that the signature is a forgery. Harel testified that after checking dozens of authentic Gutman works, she concluded that the signature on the two paintings acquired by Stern from Agassi are forged and that both were written by the same person, who is someone other than the artist.

Stern relates that at the same time he filed his suit, he looked on the market for other paintings by Gutman done in a similar style. According to him, when he found an Israeli collector with a painting of a "Galilee scene with an automobile," which was identical to the first painting he bought from Agassi, he was happy. "I thought here is decisive proof that Gutman drew this way, but they immediately used it against me and claimed that I had found the original painting."

In his statement, Tzalmona writes: "It can be clearly seen that these two paintings were drawn while trying to copy the authentic painting, which contrary to the above-mentioned two paintings, was undoubtedly done by the artist - the car in the authentic picture is marked by Gutman's handwriting and the `Gutmanish' humor and charm - the car is small, slightly bent and leaning toward the side of the path. In the second picture, however, the car is heavy, symmetric and straight, located in the middle of the path and lacks the charming flourish that is typical of Gutman's style."

One of Stern's key arguments in the charges he filed is that 50 years ago, Nahum Gutman's paintings were not forged. In order to prove that the painting was indeed done in the 1950s, Stern sent it to be checked by Professor Isto of London. Isto's findings, it was argued in the case, indicate that the painting was drawn in the 1950s, as was the signature on it. "Needless to say, every person presuming to understand art knows that 50 years ago, the works of the artist Nahum Gutman were not forged, and the plaintiff is today also not aware of any forgeries of the artist's work," Stern argued. "There seems to be no particular reason to suppose that this painting is other than the date supposed."

Leah Ofer, who until two years ago was the chief art restorer at the Israel Museum and the director of the museum's preservation labs, submitted another opinion to the court that refers to Isto's opinion. Ofer, who was asked for an opinion on the findings of the expert from London, noted that painting on cotton - the material uncovered in Isto's inquiry - is unusual for Israel. "The standard and common material used by Israeli artists and in essence, around the world, is in most cases, linen," says Ofer. "In that respect, this painting was certainly unusual, whereas the authentic picture is indeed, based on my impressions, drawn on linen."

As far as the phenomena noted by Isto in his attempt to establish the age of the painting, Ofer writes: "The various indications of erosion apparent in the painting may be a result of several factors combined, not necessarily and not even primarily, related to the age of the painting," and she cites possible reasons, for example, the way the painting was preserved, the weather, if the frame was changed and others. "It is therefore possible that the painting is a lot younger than the age attributed to it by the plaintiff....Dr. Isto does not touch on the flaws and the cracks he discerns are man-made efforts to make the picture look `old'."

Ofer further determines that the ultraviolet tests she conducted showed that certain parts of the painting were added on later, for example the tree trunks in the center of the picture and the edges of the leaves in the center left. "Clearly the colors of these items were put on the canvas not at the same time as the other colors in the painting ...

in section 52 of his statement, the plaintiff notes that he made `several very light color fill-ins in the painting...' I would like to note that I differ with Mr. Stern statement that these were `very light' color adjustments."

Stern was shocked by the results of his colleague's survey. "If the trial had continued, I would have disproved one claim after another. Everything comes down to the lightheadedness of restorers and museum directors," he says. "Do you know how many times they asked me for an opinion and when I submitted something that didn't fit the desired argument, they no longer required my services?"

Stern turns on his ultraviolet machine and turns off the gallery lights. He hangs the disputed picture on the wall and slowly goes over it. "Where? What's she talking about? There's nothing here. Look. There is this point, this is the only place where I touched it."

Ran Labadi, who submitted a statement on behalf of the plaintiff and presented himself as a past director of the Ein Hod artists' village from 1972-1976 and a founder of the Mane Katz Museum in Haifa, supports Stern's statement. "After I checked the painting in the manner described above, I tested it and the signatures with another ultraviolet light and I found nothing to raise my suspicion," he writes.

Stern sees his work as sacred, and this is the source of the great and almost unbearable blow he feels has been made against his professionalism and his reputation. "If I wanted to sell a forgery, I would've sold it in my gallery and not put it up for auction," he says angrily. That is also why he rushed to file a suit in court right after the suspicions arose. It seems in retrospect that he regrets doing so.

"These things happen all the time and you have to take care of them quietly," he says. "It's not good for the market. We should have met, talked things over. Everyone would have presented their arguments, and I believe I would have convinced them that the painting is an original."

"If Dora were alive, everything would look different," Stern adds. He knew Dora, Gutman's widow, and Gutman himself, well. He says in the past he handled many of the artist's works and also did some restorations for Gutman's son. He says that Dora picked him in 1978, the year the artist died, and Miriam Tawin, of the Shulamit Gallery, to value all of the works left in the artist's estate. "If it's so important for them to preserve Gutman's name, as his son declared in court, they should pay attention what's happening to his works on the market. For example, how is it that one of his paintings, `The Artist in a Galilee Panorama,' which was described in the Matza auction as gouache and watercolor and sold for $7,475, was offered for sale two months later at a sale by Tirosh and described there as mixed technique on paper and sold for $18,000?"

"The widow died and everyone has become an authority," he concludes. "A problem has surfaced in the market. Relatives think they know everything, they can in a second, without any thought, say that the painting is a forgery, and seal fates that way. Look, just recently, someone who considers herself an expert on establishing the authenticity of a very important artist's works came to a preliminary exhibition and argued that the painting I offered for sale was a forgery. Luckily the artist's widow, who is still alive, immediately came and confirmed that the painting was his. The market is wide open, everyone is an expert, people are looking for positions of power, and a solution has to be found for this."