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Sotheby's in New York announces sale of rare synagogue interiors by Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall, Interior of the Yemenite HaGoral Synagogue, Jerusalem. Est. $400/600,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, N.Y.- Sotheby’s New York announces that it will present for sale three exceptionally rare oil paintings of synagogue interiors by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). In all, only six finished oils of synagogues by the artist are known to exist. These three paintings come to market for the first time in 66 years from a descendent of the original owner Max Cottin, who acquired them from the 1945 exhibition at the Gallery of Jewish Art in New York. Leading this offering in the forthcoming Israeli & International Art auction on Wednesday, December 14, 2011 is Chagall’s 1931 Interior of the Yemenite HaGoral Synagogue, Jerusalem, illustrated above, which carries an estimate of $400/600,000*.

Commenting on the sale of these rare and revealing paintings, Jennifer Roth, Senior Vice President and Head of the Sotheby’s Israeli & International Art Department, said: “Documentary paintings by Chagall are remarkably rare and only six finished oils of synagogues by Chagall are known to exist. The sale this coming December represents a truly unique opportunity for collectors of Chagall to acquire works from this little known aspect of his oeuvre. Fitting testimony to their importance and rarity, two of the other three synagogue paintings reside in Museum collections: one painting is in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; one is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; and the third is in a Private Collection, on extended loan to Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme.”

A clue to the significance of these three paintings was found in a small cache of letters, written in the 1960s and 1970s, between Chagall and Max Cottin. The correspondence demonstrates Chagall’s great attachment to the paintings that Mr Cottin had acquired and eventually Chagall asks if he can buy them back or arrange a “mutually advantageous” exchange. The request was poignantly but firmly declined.

In the spring of 1931, Chagall and his family spent three months in the Holy Land, a trip he undertook to gather material for his Bible etchings. While Ambrose Vollard – his dealer – had commissioned this project, Vollard did not support or understand Chagall’s desire to travel to the land of the Bible and see it for himself. Ultimately, this trip brought Chagall closer to his Jewish roots and was to be the first of many visits there. In the mystical hill town of Safed, the seat of Kabbalah, Chagall painted two views of the Ha’Ari Sephardi Synagogue (now in the Israel Museum and the Stedelijk Museum) and one of the Ha’Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue, which is included for sale. Interior of the Ashkenazi Ha’Ari Synagogue, Safed, 1931, is estimated at $300/500,000 and the synagogue depicted, with its elaborate Ark with ornate carving by Galician craftsmen, is still in use today. It is no surprise that Chagall, raised in the Hassidic tradition, would have been drawn to synagogues dedicated to the Ha’Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-72), who had a profound impact on mystical Judaism.

The largest of the three Cottin paintings, Interior of the Yemenite HaGoral Synagogue, Jerusalem, is more enigmatic and is estimated at $400/600,000. Discussing her research into this work, Jennifer Roth, commented: “Unable to discover any photo of the synagogue, I was determined to find the structure itself, to explore whether it still resembled Chagall’s delicate and exquisite depiction. A scholar of Jerusalem synagogues provided the address and instructed me to simply go there, as there was no phone. In the old Yemenite neighborhood in Nachla’ot, through a maze of winding pedestrian streets, impassable to motor traffic, I finally spotted a small plaque with the name of the synagogue. Within moments we were standing in the small upstairs room, in the footsteps of Chagall, admiring the tri-partite wooden Torah Ark surmounted by delicate carving, which had been so lovingly portrayed.”

The third of the synagogue works was painted in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1935, where Chagall was invited to open the Museum of Jewish Art. The painting has a more somber feel than the others, perhaps an indication of the gathering clouds of the 1930s. Beneath the glow of the beautiful stained glass windows, the synagogue is shown empty. It depicts the “Kloyz” or study hall of the Vilna Gaon. Remarkably, the painting appears to be the only extant record of the Torah Ark of this small but important synagogue, which was destroyed just a few years later in the ashes of the Holocaust. Synagogue in Vilna, the “Kloyz” of the Vilna Gaon, 1935, is estimated at $300/500,000.

All three oil paintings were shown in 1945 at the Gallery of Jewish Art in New York, where Mr. Cottin bought his treasured artworks. The exhibition opened as World War II was finally drawing to a close and the full impact of the destruction of European Jewry was becoming known.

Among the other highlights of the sale on 14 December are several works by Reuven Rubin, including The Drummer of Meron from 1929, as well as several landscapes and still lifes; Nahum Gutmann, the other founding father of Israeli art, is represented by two brightly colored harbor scenes of Jaffa and Haifa. Other exceptional works include oils by Mordecai Ardon, Ori Reisman and Michael Gross and a large-scale steel sculpture by Yaacov Agam. The Contemporary art section includes a video by Sigalit Landau, who represented Israel at this year’s Venice Biennale.

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