Trial Ends, but Mystery of Stolen Safed Paintings Still Unsolved

City's former deputy mayor cleared of theft, but 23 paintings are still missing.

What was considered a few years ago the most scandalous artwork theft in the country's history fizzled out last week into a plea bargain in the Nazareth District Court and complete silence about the whereabouts of the stolen goods.

Reuven Sadeh, a 54-year-old gallery owner who was indicted two years ago during his term as deputy mayor for stealing a valuable Mane Katz painting from the municipal building, in addition to 22 other art works belonging to the city, was convicted on far lighter charges. In a plea bargain negotiated by the prosecution with Sadeh's attorney, Amit Bar, the former deputy mayor was convicted of obtaining possession of the paintings by fraud in aggravated circumstances, as well as of fabricating evidence and disrupting legal proceedings. He was sentenced to 10 months probation but the most important question was left hanging in the air: What happened to the valuable Mane Katz paintings that were stolen from the Safed municipal building?

The original indictment against Sadeh was far more severe and included the charge of theft by a member of the civil service of all 23 paintings belonging to the city of Safed, including Mane Katz's "The Circus," which the painter donated to the city in 1951. The artist of Jewish and shtetl-themed paintings was born in Ukraine and lived in Paris; he bequeathed his works to the city of Haifa and the Glitzenstein Museum in Safed.

The police investigation that led to the indictment revealed that most of the stolen works belonged to the Shapira collection which the city received in 1969 and exhibited in the Glitzenstein beginning in 1970. In 1985 the Glitzenstein became a Bible museum, after which the paintings were stored in its attic and some were hung in the municipal building. It was claimed that they were stolen at some point between the closing of the Glitzenstein as an art museum and 2007.

According to the original indictment, Sadeh, who is also a gallery owner in Safed, obtained them while he served as deputy mayor.

But little remains of the original serious charges against him. The changes that led to the plea bargain followed a judicial inquiry held after the trial had begun. A French expert witness on behalf of the defense testified that the stolen paintings were in fact reproductions valued at mere hundreds of euros, the cost of the materials used to make them.

"This is not a lightweight matter," Judge Shaher Atrash wrote in his decision. "The belated judicial inquiry that brought about a change in the indictment caused an additional delay in judgment for the accused."

The prosecution was forced to admit that the "plea bargain was made in light of the evidentiary difficulty revealed while the case was being conducted. Among other things, the results of the inquiry [showed] that the paintings listed in the first indictment were not valuable originals as was first argued. If the paintings found in the accused's possession are not originals, then they are apparently not the paintings stolen from the municipality of Safed. It cannot be argued that the paintings donated to the Glitzenstein collection are not originals, which contradicts other evidence in the case."

Sadeh was also charged in the original indictment with stealing Mane Katz's "The Circus," estimated to be worth $100,000, from the municipal building. In three break-ins that occurred between 2005 and 2007, six of eight of the artist's works were stolen, but only "The Circus" has been located - a fact discovered by Mane Katz Museum director Noa Tarshish, and which led to a furor over the affair.

The terms of the plea bargain do not include any mention of "The Circus," but only a forgery of the painting's authentication. The opinion of the defense's expert witness stated that the painting was a copy produced in the last decade, while according to museum director Tarshish, who is considered an authority on Mane Katz, "There is no doubt that 'The Circus' is an original painting."

The plea bargain and the judgment, therefore, leave a lot of questions unanswered, including how Sadeh obtained "The Circus," even if it is a reproduction as the defense claims. A resolution of this matter remains hanging in the air.

According to attorney Bar, the great disparity between the clauses in the original indictment and those on which Sadeh was convicted prove that he is the victim of a grievous injustice. "They have ruined his life and managed to finish him off," Bar says.

The questions about the whereabouts of the stolen paintings make it clear that the public may be the biggest loser in this affair, and demonstrate how the city of Safed has lost its standing as a lively art and cultural center. Six Mane Katz paintings owned by the public and donated to the city in its heyday have been stolen, and the remaining two have been removed to safe-keeping in the Mane Katz Museum in Haifa.

"This is the story of the city's deterioration," says Tarshish, a native of Safed. "A public collection has simply disappeared. It's a scandal. I still have a dream of reopening the Glitzenstein Museum and returning it to its former glory, [but] I think it will remain just a dream."