Alleged Mob Kingpin Suspected in Safed City Hall Art Theft

Police yesterday raided the home of alleged crime kingpin Meir Abergil in Kfar Truman, confiscating eight paintings - one of them by Reuven Rubin - suspecting they could be among the art works stolen from Safed's city hall in recent years.

Safed Deputy Mayor Reuven Sade was arrested a week and a half ago on suspicion of being involved in the theft of six paintings by artist Emmanuel Mane-Katz from the municipality. Since Sade and Abergil are friends, police suspect that the two may be involved in the theft of several paintings that were once displayed in Safed's Glitzenstein Museum.

Six paintings, which Mane-Katz had donated to Safed about 50 years ago, were stolen from city hall in three separate break-ins over the past three years.

Police said they are not sure at this point where the paintings taken from Abergil's house came from, but have asked Carmela Rubin, curator of the Rubin Museum in Tel Aviv, to assess whether the Rubin painting was authentic and who had owned it previously.

Tamir Greenberg of Jerusalem and Freddy Yaakobi of Ra'anana were also arrested a week and a half ago, after being caught with 23 stolen paintings in their possession, including ones by Edouard Manet and Eugene Delacroix that were not among the paintings stolen from Safed city hall. Greenberg and Yaakobi are suspected of trafficking in stolen paintings estimated to be worth millions of shekels.

After the last burglary, the remaining two Mane-Katz paintings in Safed city hall were moved to the Mane-Katz Museum in Haifa, for fear they too would be stolen. Noa Tarshish, director and curator of the Mane-Katz Museum, said one of the stolen paintings is worth about $100,000. Tarshish uncovered the theft about a year ago, after a gallery owner from Herzliya told her that the painting "Woman with Circus Horse" had reached him. Once on display in Safed's Glitzenstein Museum, the painting had been moved to city hall and was stolen from there in 2005.

Tarshish, 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 the auction house Sotheby's, asking for an opinion about the same painting. "I contacted the chairwoman of Sotheby's, Rivka Saker, and told her the painting was stolen," Tarshish said.

At that stage the police took over the investigation.