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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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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