Life & Culture

The £2 million masterpiece lost in a shul cupboard for 15 years

The ‘spectacular’ 19th-century German painting of the Western Wall sold at auction earlier this month


Gustav Bauernfeind's Western Wall

The air of anticipation among the experts sat in the New York auction house was palpable. Buyers, gripping numbered bidding paddles, sat on rows of grey folding chairs in the centre of the York Avenue sale room. Along the side were the specialists, awaiting clients’ phoned instructions. Among this group was Benjamin Doller, Sotheby’s head of Americas.

The last of the Master Paintings & Sculpture Part I sale’s 49 lots at the auction on 2 February was of particular interest to Doller – and not just in his capacity as a representative of a buying client. For Doller was privy to the recent history of the painting about to go under the hammer.

Last summer he had been enjoying a Friday off when his office called. An unnamed synagogue and education centre on the west coast of the US had emailed a photo of a painting they had discovered in one of their cupboards. The painting was Gustav Bauernfeind’s Western Wall.

German painter Bauernfeind is considered perhaps one of the leading artists of the Orientalists – a 19th-century movement of Western artists depicting scenes from their travels to western Asia. Their works drifted out of fashion in the early 20th century but their popularity – and value – shot up again in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1997 Bauernfeind’s oil The Port of Jaffa became the most expensive 19th century painting ever sold in Germany when it went under the hammer in Cologne for 1,510,000 marks. Little surprise then that Doller was keen to discover more when he learnt of the email that dropped into his office’s inbox that Friday.

“I was on the tennis court and we immediately got hold of the executive director of the institution,” he recalls. “And the next week I was on a plane to California to see the painting. And it basically knocked my socks off. I thought it was spectacular.”

Taken out of the cupboard ahead of Doller’s arrival, he understands that Western Wall had been stored there for 15 years, having been donated to the institution around half a century ago.

“It had a clean in it, as we say in our business,” he recalls of the moment he first set eyes on the 1.27 metre-wide “beautifully dirty” Orientalist painting. But it was in remarkable condition, given its recent history, and required minimal conservation work to be ready for sale.

“It only needed a light cleaning and the colours really popped, and it just looked amazing.”

Doller says the synagogue were as surprised as anyone by the discovery. “Over the summer they were clearing things out, and Googling around all the art that they had in the storage closet to see if anything was worth money. And this one came up as: ‘Yes! it’s worth money...’”

Probably painted around 1890 in Jerusalem, the work’s exact date and location of execution remain a mystery. What is known is that it was donated to the synagogue by the supermarket founder Theodore Cummings, who became President Ronald Reagan’s Austrian ambassador. But uncertainty surrounds how long the painting spent time in Cummings’ collection and whether he bought it to donate directly to the Jewish institution, perhaps in memory of a friend.

Bauernfeind’s training as an architect shines through in the work’s linear perspective of the Western Wall’s receding into the lighter coloured stone wall behind. A trapezoid of solid blue sky fills the top third of the plane on the left, and green scrubby plants define the Kotel’s height, contrasting to the rear wall’s lower, bare outline delineated against an expanse of sky.

A sharply angled shadow across the wall and tree in the background, emphasises the Western Wall’s monumentality and mass. Small, uneven stones in hues of brown and grey on the lower left suggest the Moroccan Quarter’s presence, with a low arched doorway framing a quartet of seated women at prayer. The differently angled and contrastingly shaded masonry on both sides of the plane create a funnel shape in front of the Western Wall, which the artist fills with figures.

This sense of three dimensions is enhanced by the size and aspect of the figures, all angled in slightly different ways towards the viewer, and not one of them directly meeting the their gaze. Doller explains: “I love the fact that he has the ones that are closest to the wall, with their tallit over their heads, praying. Then he’s got some holding a Seder but looking away, and then he’s got some walking. And then, of course, the women are all the way in the back.”

Meticulously placed details in intense colours draw the eye, adding to the illusion we are witnessing the scene as if at the red robed, protruding elbow of the foreground’s central figure. “What’s interesting is, as part of the composition, how he managed to mix the costumes and the colours so they really work well with each other. If this were a play, I could see a set designer staging it so that all of those people were in those specific places. This is not the way the Western Wall looks today. Obviously the Wall is the same, but it’s a big plaza and there is a division for the men and the women to pray separately.”

Clothing also identifies the different groups who prayed at the Western Wall at the end of the 19th century. “The Sephardi are the men with the very colourful robes, like the man right in the foreground, the older man with that yellow and blueish-purple robe. Then the Ashkenazi are with the shtreimel and tallit. There’s a man further back, it looks like he has a fez on, that’s Mizrahi.”

Sotheby’s has been able to decipher some of the script on the stone in the right foreground, above the praying heads. Likening the inscriptions to notes with names of the sick placed into the Kotel today, Doller says although some poetic licence may have been taken with the height and positioning of the wall text, the practice of carving names has historical precedent.

“Bauernfeind might have seen it on a different stone, but they definitely did it at the time. I’ve seen it on other paintings, and I could see somebody bringing a ladder – it wasn’t always as crowded as this. It’s not there now, but then it was.”

Born in the southern German town of Sulz am Neckar in 1848, Bauernfeind studied architecture in Stuttgart, and then painting, and made three extended trips to Ottoman Palestine in the 1880s. Moving with his wife Elsie and son to the country in 1896, the family settled in Jerusalem’s German Colony two years later.

Doller puts Bauernfeind in the lineage of influential French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix (1798 -1863), and Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). “Part of Delacroix’s oeuvre was going to the Middle East and painting very exotic subjects of Arabs and Jewish brides.

“So he’s mid-19th century. And then there’s Gérôme, who I call the granddaddy of the Orientalists. And he really popularised going to the Middle East and painting Arab subjects, Jewish subjects, architecture, but he was extremely detailed. And then Bauernfeind comes, who’s trained as an architect, and he really falls in love with Israel, Palestine at the time. And because he’s trained in architecture, a lot of his paintings are very heavy on the architecture side.

“He likes painting market scenes in Jaffa, and he rarely paints things with no figures in them. So he’s combining a freedom of his painting from Delacroix and detail from Gérôme.”

Bauernfeind died in Jerusalem in 1904 and is buried in the German Templers cemetery. Anglo-French art historian Adrian Darmon points out that the artist’s pharmacist father converted to Catholicism from Judaism.

Back in the New York sales room, Doller describes the bidding war for Western Wall earlier this month as a “fight between two telephones”. The hammer finally fell at $3.4million (£2.67million) including fees - the fifth highest price ever achieved for a Bauernfeind.

Doller says the new owner is “a private buyer who generally is generous with lending things. So my guess is at some point the painting will be back in the public domain.”

In different times Western Wall would have been displayed at Sotheby’s in Tel Aviv before the New York sale but the current security situation in Israel prevented this.

However, its inclusion in a Thursday auction was significant. “The reason we didn’t put Western Wall in the sale on Friday is because the sale time on a Friday afternoon is three o’clock,” said Doller. “The Shabbat starts earlier in the winter and one of the bidders is Orthodox. We didn’t want to have this in a sale where some of the bidders wouldn’t be able to participate.”​

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