Felix Tikotin
Felix Tikotin Photo by Haifa Museum of Art
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Dutch hostility toward Japan posed a major professional problem for Felix Tikotin, the late Jewish art dealer from Amsterdam who founded the Middle East's only Japanese museum in Haifa 50 years ago. As a specialist in Japanese art living in 1950s Holland, Tikotin struggled for years to get his countrymen to overcome their animosity toward their brutal wartime foe so he could continue to work in his unique field of expertise.

Eventually he discovered that all he really needed was folded paper.

Tikotin - whose museum celebrated its 50th anniversary this month - in 1955 gave Holland its first origami exhibition. This display in Amsterdam of works by the origami grandmaster Akira Yoshizawa became a European sensation. According to Tikotin's grandson, Jaron Borensztajn, it was a landmark step for Holland in terms of overcoming hostility toward Japan after the Asian country's occupation of Indonesia, which had been a Dutch colony until 1948.

"Before the origami exhibition, it was practically impossible to sell Japanese art in Holland after the war," says Borensztajn, 45, who is producing a documentary about his grandfather's life. He says Tikotin held many exhibitions prior to the origami one, "which all helped open people's minds."

According to Borensztajn, a computer science specialist, his charismatic grandfather believed art transcends nationality. Throughout his long life, Felix Tikotin - who could hardly speak any Japanese - maintained friendships across Japan with people with whom he could barely communicate verbally.

Situated on the crest of Mount Carmel, the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art currently holds over 7,000 items, some extremely rare, including prints by the 18th century masters Toshusai Sharaku and Utagawa Toyokuni. Paper works by Masa Kumagai and etchings by Hamanishi Katsunori (today considered the leading Japanese print artist in the world ) are also on display.

During the anniversary ceremony this month, some 1,000 guests made their way through the bamboo garden of the spacious building at 89 Hanassi Avenue to celebrate, including the Japanese ambassador, Haruhisa Takeuchi. The museum, established by Tikotin as a municipal institution, falls under the purview of the city of Haifa, which also funds its operations.

Turning points

One exhibition that Tikotin curated before the war was sponsored by the Nazi government's ambassador to Copenhagen in 1933. "My grandfather didn't care much about the political aspect of this issue," Borensztajn explains.

That exhibition proved fateful for Tikotin, an architect-turned-dealer born in 1893 in the Polish city of Glogau, while it was still part of Germany. While on his way to Denmark to ship the works back to Germany, Tikotin learned the Reichstag had been burnt down - an event that would later prove pivotal for the establishment of Nazi Germany.

Acting on the advice of a friend, Tikotin shipped the exhibition to Amsterdam instead of Germany, and proceeded to liquidate his affairs in Germany as he prepared to move to the Netherlands. Using connections, luck and a lot of charm, he finally succeeded in shipping his entire collection out of Germany and into Holland. The Netherlands was later invaded and occupied by the Germans, but Tikotin managed to survive the Holocaust in hiding.

"My grandfather was an adventurous man with a taste for the exotic," Borensztajn says. That trait, he explains, is the reason Tikotin chose to focus on Japanese art instead of the Dresden expressionist art scene, which included some of Tikotin's close personal friends.

Not Zionistic, not anti-Zionistic Felix Tikotin's first encounter with Japanese art was in 1911, at an international exhibition in Germany where he bought his first Japanese print. Later, in 1915, he had a more meaningful encounter with Japanese art in Krakow after serving with honors in the German army during World War I. Intrigued, he sought the guidance of one of Europe's earliest Nipponophiles, Woldemar von Seidlitz, who was then director of the print room in Dresden.

Later on, in 1959, Tikotin decided to donate the lion's share of his collection to Israel after his daughter, Ilana Drukker, decided to move here. Drukker, Borensztajn's aunt, now lives with her Dutch-born husband, Alfred, in Jerusalem.

"My grandfather was very pragmatic and wasn't Zionistic, but he wasn't anti-Zionistic either," Borensztajn says. "I think the energetic atmosphere here attracted him more than the ideals. He connected to it, plus his daughter was already here."

Tikotin tried living here for a while with his wife, Eva, whom he first met in Amsterdam in 1934 when she began working as his assistant. But before long, he realized he could not continue his international businesses in the socialist Israel of the 1960s. He moved back to Europe, eventually settling in Switzerland.

While in Israel, Tikotin favored giving his collection to the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. "But he changed his mind when he saw how they kept the other collections in the basement, with cobwebs everywhere," Borensztajn says.

He can still recall his grandfather, who died in 1986, arriving at the age of 90 to Amsterdam from Switzerland, carrying two heavy suitcases after having traveled by train all the way from the Alps. "He didn't have a driver's license and thought taxis were a waste of money," Borensztajn says.

When Tikotin was 88, Borensztajn accompanied him on a trip to Japan. "He was treated with a lot of respect there," the grandson recalls. "He was quite happy to advertise the fact that he was 88 - a holy and revered age in Japan. When we would stand in line for some tourist attraction, he would say 'hachi ju hachi' [88 in Japanese] and would get in for free. He quite enjoyed that."