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The Israeli Man Who Collected Everything

"Portrait of the Collector Arnie Druck" by Daniel Enkaoua
"Portrait of the Collector Arnie Druck" by Daniel Enkaoua
Dana Gillerman

TEL AVIV — For 40 years Arnie Druck has been a collector. He has built one of Israel’s largest and most impressive caches of Israeli and Jewish art, local photography, wines, books, artifacts linked to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and El Al airline memorablia.

His four-decade foray into collecting sprouted from his Bar Mitzvah trip abroad and continued in a small Jaffa gallery at the height of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

Now, at age 63, Druck, this wealthy American-born real estate and tax lawyer, is in what he calls “rehab,” willing for the first time to relinquish his beloved artifacts via a huge auction last week. Working with the Kedem auction house, he put tens of thousands of items — the lion’s share of his collection — up for sale.

The idea to sell his collection came two years ago after he saw what happened to another large collection following the death of its owner Ami Brown. “I saw the family giving everything away,” Druck told Calcalist in his first-ever interview. “I told myself I didn’t want to leave it to my children and wife because they couldn’t handle it. I want the auction to take place when I’m still alive and know the value and significance of all the items.”

And yet, this auction will not be the end of the road for him. He still intends to go back to the arts, even if not to collecting per se. The two hefty catalogues printed for the auction make for an astonishing document in itself, likely to later become collectibles in their own right.

They document dozens of artworks by Jewish and Israeli artists; the largest ever collection of Hebrew illustrated children’s books ever to be auctioned, which is also the largest private collection of this genre in the world; signed business cards of David Ben Gurion; manuscripts and even a diary of former foreign minister Aba Eban; artifacts related to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty from the late 1970s, including a photograph from the Camp David summit signed by then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and U.S. President Jimmy Carter at the Jerusalemite auction house; a collection of anti-Semitic postcards; and much more.

Some of the more esoteric collections might testify to Druck’s obsession: The El Al collection comprises more than 1,300 items — including airline manifests and stewardess and pilot hats.

Druck’s wife Nechami says that even on their most recent flight he couldn’t help but take a paper cup. “I told him, ‘enough.’ And he replied, ‘Never mind, I will add it to the auction.’ And that’s what happened.” The entire El Al collection was to be sold in what is called a single lot, at a value of $7,000.

Breaking up is hard to do

Some of the artworks are on loan at leading law firms, others with friends. “And I cannot remember who I gave what,” Druck says. But there were also some more prosaic reasons for the auction. “Two years ago I moved from Jerusalem to Jaffa, and here it’s humid so I couldn’t keep the things at home,” he says. “I like most of the things, and if I were to choose what to leave the majority would be left. So I understood I had to sell everything, to purify.”

Another dispute between Druck and Kedem involved Druck’s unusual offer to give 10% of the revenue to artists. In Europe and in some U.S. states, a law requires that a certain share of the price be set aside for the artists. When Druck wanted to do this in his own sale, he says, Kedem’s former owner agreed but others at the auction house objected, saying “it will only cause problems.”

Druck says he believes in social protest. “I’m willing to give back,” he says. “That was the intention behind my proposal — to show I really care about artists and galleries.”

Where it all began

Druck grew up in New York, went to a Jewish school and then a Yeshiva high school. In between, as part of a Bar Mitzvah trip, he sailed to Jerusalem on a Zim ship. His father gave him his first Zim items and he collected the rest out of Zionist passion. In 1969, he studied at the Hebrew University for a few months, then in Berkeley.

During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War he attended a lecture by Elie Wiesel about the situation in Israel and decided to come and volunteer. “I came, I wasn’t needed, so I wandered around Jerusalem and walked in Ha'Sha'ar Gallery in the entrance to the Old City. There I bought my first two artworks: one by Yaakov Agam, and a painting of Jerusalem. Absolutely kitsch. I gave both to my mom in New York, and when I went back to Berkeley I started visiting museums.”

At Berkeley he studied humanities and psychology, and then completed a law degree in New York. In 1978 he immigrated to Israel and volunteered to join the army. In fact, Druck’s collecting is bound with love for Israel, no less and perhaps more, than with love for the arts.

Many of his purchases were meant to preserve and even reconstruct eras and genres in the Jewish and Israeli culture. Children’s books in Hebrew (and also in Yiddish and German) from Eastern Europe are a good example — altogether 6,000 items to be sold in 80 lots after years of tireless collection. Druck says he also used to be one of the important collectors of Israel Hershberg and was the attorney of the Jerusalem Studio School Hershberg had founded.

Druck has sold some of Hershberg’s works, and others are included in the current auction, but Druck is upset that the most important Hershberg work he owns did not make it into the sale. “It’s a picture of male nudity, and one that is not circumcised,” Druck says. “Galleries and museums don’t want to put it on display because it’s male nudity. It’s an iconic artwork, one of Hershberg’s most important works, that’s worth at least a quarter of a million dollars. But it’s not in the auction because one of Kedem’s owners is ultra-Orthodox and they also sell prayer books. Nudity is difficult for them.”

Asked whether he had considered donating his collection to a public institute, Druck explains. “A few years ago I was a member of the Israel Museum’s purchase committee, and I saw what happens to collections donated to the museum. The majority are left in the cellars, and even there they have no place. I knew that a thousandth of what I would donate would go on display and I decided this is not my way.”

Eventually, he just got tired. “I reached that stage in life where I ignored everything but my collections and my family, and sometimes the family was at a lower priority. And then my health signaled I needed to change direction. About 10 years ago I had a heart attack on a flight to New York, and a few months ago I got another warning sign when I arrived to the hospital with heart aches. I went to a dietitian, and in the last three months I lost 12 kilograms,” he says. “And then I told myself: the same way I went on diet with willpower, choosing to cease being a collector also requires willpower.”

Next, Druck is thinking about starting a fund for investment in the arts — he already has potential Israeli and Jewish American investors — “but it will no longer be in my storage.”

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