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Obituary: Solomon Kaufman

MANY LAWYERS have a second career inside their legal persona trying to get out and Solomon Kaufman was no exception.

He was born in London in 1908, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father imported china and perhaps it was this early connection with design which would give Kaufman his second career, in art, when he retired from the law.

He was educated at the Grocers' School in Hackney, east London. Fluent in languages, Kaufman took degrees at the universities of London, Bonn, and Montpelier, ending with postgraduate study at the University of Moscow on the law relating to international rivers, before qualifying as a solicitor. After a short period with Nathan & Co he established his own firm, Kaufman and Siegal, specialising in trust and entertainment work.

Throughout his career he was interested in Jewish matters and in the 1930s he was the Honorary Secretary to the International Political Committee of the Jewish Agency. After the Second World War, he took a close interest in the development of the state of Israel, acting for the Israeli Provisional Government in three appeals, two successful, to the Privy Council over death sentences passed on Jewish dissidents.

In 1962 he was asked to represent the spy Robert Soblen, a naturalised American who had been removed from Israel by US marshals in what might politely be described as complicated circumstances. Soblen had been accused of conspiracy to deliver secret information to Russia in 1944-45. Because of ill-health, he was released on bail and on 25 June 1962, the day the US Supreme Court rejected his case and he was due to start a life sentence, he fled to Israel using his dead brother's passport.

Soblen was then taken on a specially chartered plane to Athens, where he was transferred to an El Al airliner bound for New York via London. En route he stabbed himself with a steak knife and the plane was diverted to Heathrow. The Home Secretary had made an order under the Aliens Order refusing Soblen leave to land but on humanitarian grounds he was rushed to hospital. Two days later he was out of danger and the order requiring him to leave was served. Now Soblen wished to challenge the legality of the order on the grounds that he had received implied leave to land and could not subsequently be refused leave without deportation proceedings.

Kaufman applied for a writ of habeas corpus for his client, with an emergency midnight hearing before a judge at his home in St John's Wood, north London. It was successful. Meanwhile, in Israel, there had been a vote of no confidence in the Knesset over the circumstances of Soblen's deportation. An application for Soblen's release to the High Court and the Court of Appeal failed.

It was then announced that, if Soblen was placed on an El Al aircraft, he would be taken back to Israel, so it was arranged he would fly Pan Am. Then, on 6 September, in somewhat mysterious circumstances, Soblen obtained 30 grains of Seconal in prison and swallowed them before he was flown out. He died four days later. The outcome may not have been a happy one but Kaufman had shown he could work quickly under pressure in politically sensitive cases.

The next year Kaufman undertook his most famous case, when he was asked by the Jewish World Congress to represent the writer Leon Uris in the libel action brought against him by the former concentration camp doctor Wladislaw Dering, by now living in London. In his book Exodus Uris had alleged that Dering had performed some 17,000 experimental and unnecessary operations on prisoners in Auschwitz.

One of the problems Kaufman faced was to obtain hospital records from Poland, which was by this time under Communist rule. It was his skill in negotiating with the authorities that secured the vital release of these documents, which showed in Dering's clear handwriting the details of the operations he had undertaken and which turned the case in favour of the defendants. In the resulting trial, Dering obtained the derisory damages of a halfpenny. But the triumph was for Uris and Kaufman. Dering died the following year, still owing some pounds 17,000 of the costs of the action.

Kaufman resolved to give up politically orientated work and concentrated on his commercial practice before he retired from active practice in 1960, becoming a consultant with Sacker and Partners.

He then took up what was the love of his life - art. Already he had a fine collection of both modern and 18th-century drawings. Now he enrolled in art-history studies at both University College London and Essex University, obtaining a PhD and later an MPhil in Italian Stage Art in 1982. He then lectured at the Cini Foundation in Venice from 1982 to 1990 on Italian Stage Aesthetics. He was a member of the Council of Friends of Art Museums of Israel, to which he left his library of over 2,000 volumes.

Solomon Kaufman, lawyer and art historian: born London 18 May 1908; married 1936 Jennie Lubin (died 1998; one son, one daughter); died London 25 December 1998.