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In the storeroom of the Mane-Katz Museum on Mount Carmel in Haifa, "Woman with Circus Horse" awaits the day on which it will be shown to the public. "It's a great painting. You see an exuberant horse with a circus woman on its back and a clown below. It is a very typical Mane-Katz work," the museum's director, Noa Tarshish, says with a sigh of sadness.

The painting's journey, which began 55 years ago with the artist's generosity, continued with neglect on the part of Safed municipality and ended in theft, is not yet over. "Woman with Circus Horse" will have to go on waiting in the storeroom until its role as trial evidence concludes.

Tarshish uncovered the theft about a year ago, after a gallery owner from Herzliya contacted her and told her that the painting had reached him "after being in the possession of someone named Glitzenstein in Safed." A quick search through the museum's database made it clear that the painting, which had once been on display in Safed's Glitzenstein Museum, had been moved to city hall and was stolen from there in 2005. Tarshsish, who is herself Safed-born, contacted the municipality immediately, but got the impression that no one there was interested in the story.

Last October, when she had already despaired of the case, she received a call from the Israel branch of Sotheby's, the auction house, asking for an opinion about the same painting. "It was amazing," Tarshish says. "I contacted the chairwoman of Sotheby's, Rivka Saker, and told her the painting was stolen."

The investigation was transferred to the police Northern District fraud unit and began to make progress.

Almost a year later, the investigators believe they know who was behind the theft: Safed deputy mayor Reuven Sade. He was arrested this week on suspicion of having stolen six paintings by Emmanuel Mane-Katz in three burglaries from the Safed city hall. Last Tuesday the Nazareth Magistrate's Court remanded him until today. Arrested with him were Tamir Greenberg, 39, from Jerusalem, and Freddy Yaakobi, 66, from Ra'anana, both suspected of acting as middlemen in the sale of the paintings.

Mane-Katz, a Jewish painter of international repute, who is best known for his depictions of the Jewish shtetl, surely never imagined that paintings he donated in 1953 to the city that was then the art capital of Israel would be stolen by its deputy mayor. But Safed today is hardly the same city that Mane-Katz knew.

"The artists' quarter was the holy of holies," Tarshish recalls. In the 1950s and 1960s, the ancient lanes of the former Muslim quarter, in which the artists' quarter was established, together with the synagogues and the crystalline air drew to the city leading artists such as Yosl Bergner, Moshe Castel and Menahem Shemi. Safed became the center of the plastic arts in Israel, and housed some of the country's most important galleries.

"The artists' quarter throbbed with life," recalls David Amiel, a tour guide and historian of Safed. "Some of the country's top nightclubs were located here, with debut performances by Jimmy Lloyd, Aris San and Naomi Shemer."

Shemer put on her show "The Ten Just Men," which featured some of her best-known songs, in the After Hours club. The club's entertainment team included the young performers Shaike Levy and Gavri Banai, who would later constitute two-thirds of the iconic Hagashash Hahiver comedy troupe. Close by was the famous Nights of Canaan club.

Safed became a tourist attraction in the modest Israel of that era. "About 40 hotels were built in the city, which became affluent thanks to the tourism influx," Amiel says. "There was a rich community life and active movie theaters. The education system was superb, and the city stood out in the sport of fencing - I myself was on the Olympic team."

"It was a colorful, lovely city, a city of religious and secular living together in harmony, a city of health and beauty," Tarshish sums up.

As befits a city of art, the Glitzenstein Museum was opened in 1953 in the city center. To mark the event, Mane-Katz donated eight of his works to the institution. This was not a donation by a distant philanthropist. Mane-Katz, who was born in Ukraine in 1894 and lived in Paris from the age of 19, was a regular visitor to Israel. Armed with a special permit from the police commissioner, Yehezkel Sahar, which allowed him to wander throughout the country and paint freely, Mane-Katz visited Safed on his travels and decided to help the museum. When he died in 1962, he knew his paintings were in safe hands.

"It's hard for me to speak ill of the city," Amiel says. But he knows the situation: "The decline began in the mid-1980s. A disadvantaged population arrived in the city, mostly Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] and hasidic. Safed became a poor city - many of its inhabitants do not pay municipal taxes."

The artists left for the center of the country, and nowadays Safed, population 32,000, finds itself with a large cumulative deficit which the mayor, Yishai Maimon, claims to have reduced to NIS 12 million from NIS 60 million, though the opposition maintains that the deficit is NIS 40 million. On top of this, 2,500 families are under the care of the city's social-welfare department. In recent years the Interior Ministry has appointed an accountant to oversee the municipality's bookkeeping.

The municipal spokesman, Moshe Ohana, agrees that things are not good. "This is a hard city," he says. "A municipality lives from local taxes, and we are not Kfar Sava. Many residents are exempted from municipal taxes by law, and NIS 24 million - a fifth of the budget - is earmarked for social-welfare payments." Nevertheless, he says, Safed continues to attract tourists and art lovers, and new hotels will soon be built in the city to meet the demand.

That optimism is not universally shared. "The city has become sad and hallucinatory," Amiel says, "a refuge for half-baked celebrities, and doomsters and seers of apocalyptic visions. I am afraid that Safed will sink into oblivion."

Without money, without artists and without tourists, the museum was one of the first victims of budget cuts in the 1980s. The artworks, including those of Mane-Katz, were shunted from one storeroom to another. "The pictures were not treated properly and were in a terrible state. I suggested that they undergo restoration, but the municipality did not respond," Tarshish says.

Superintendent Aharon Galor, from the fraud unit: "It turns out that many works that were in the museum disappeared, but no complaints were filed with the police."

After Mane-Katz's eight large paintings languished for some years in the storeroom, someone in city hall decided that they could be put to use. They were hung in offices, but were apparently treated as mere decorative objects. The investigators who tried to trace the works during the past year questioned a senior official who had "Woman with Circus Horse" hanging on the wall behind his back in his office. "I don't remember what was painted there," he replied. "Maybe a ship, I'm not sure."

Tarshish hasn't seen the paintings for years, and does not want to estimate their exact value. "The financial value of the paintings depends on technique, period, size and subject matter," she says. "The paintings that were stolen are good works. Mane-Katz is going up in sales."

The police now suspect that it was, despite everything, someone in city hall who understood what was hanging on the walls. Specifically, they believe, it was the deputy mayor, Reuven Sade, who also sells artworks and owns the Judith Gallery in the city. Sade has two previous convictions, one for assault and the other for submitting a forged document to the municipal planning department implying that his neighbor agreed to joint construction work. Sade is currently running for the city council on Arcadi Gaydamak's Social Justice ticket.

City hall was burglarized three times, each time cleanly, without any traces or clues left behind. The first time, in 2005, the thieves (or thief) reached the third floor and took four Mane-Katz paintings, among them "Woman with Circus Horse." Nevertheless, the municipality did not step up security for the artworks, and the burglars figured that the money was as good as lying on the floor. The municipality declined to explain to Haaretz the measures it took to guard the paintings, claiming the police had told them to keep mum. Some time later another Mane-Katz painting was stolen, and a sixth work disappeared in February 2007.

It was only then that the municipality woke up to the fact that it could not guard the two remaining Mane-Katz paintings, and Tarshish was summoned urgently to take them. One of them depicts a drowning horse, the other a still life. The police now know that a week before the last theft, Sade, in his capacity as deputy mayor, asked the Mane-Katz Museum for information about the paintings that had been donated to the Safed Municipality. He told Tarshish that he wanted the information because he thought he had a lead that would enable him to locate the stolen paintings.

Katz's lawyer, Nathan Pantz, says his client denies the suspicions against him. He says it is a fabrication stemming from a business dispute and was also concocted by political adversaries. The theft was discovered a few months afterward, when the Herzliya gallery owner contacted Tarshish. "Woman with a Circus" was returned to the Mane-Katz Museum, and the investigators began tracking down the thieves, with the aid of information about the paintings supplied by the museum.

The suspects arrested last week were found to be in possession of 23 stolen paintings, but none of them were by Mane-Katz. Tarshish still hopes that the five missing Mane-Katz works will find their way to a museum in Haifa - not to Safed, which failed to safeguard its artistic heritage. "Art was an integral part of the city. It grieves me," she says. "This is not the city I grew up in."