Text size

Dozens of rare and priceless clocks stolen from the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem 24 years ago, in a theft that has mystified investigators, have returned home and are soon to be presented to the public.

Among the items, located in August, 2006, after the museum's director received a telephone tip from a Tel Aviv watchmaker, the rarest and most expensive clock is a gold and rock-crystal pocket-watch made over a number of years for Marie Antoinette by the French watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet (1747-1823).

The theft of 40 items from the original collection of 100 clocks, one of the most important in the world, occured on Friday night, April 15, 1983, when thieves managed to bend the bars on a back window of the museum and use a ladder to get inside, covering their presence with a large truck, which they parked in the back, taking advantage of the fact that the alarm system was broken, and the guard was stationed in the front. On Sunday morning when the theft was discovered, police said it had clearly been "commissioned" because the thieves knew to take only the most expensive items in the collection.

The rarer items were known to dealers and galleries the world over, and the search was intense and wide-reaching, but fruitless. Monetary rewards posted by the museum and its insurers went unclaimed.

Then, in August 2006, a break came in the notorious case: The museum's veteran director, Rachel Hasson, received a phone call from a Tel Aviv watchmaker who told her a young lawyer had phoned and invited him to her office to appraise 40 clocks she had in her possession. The watchmaker immediately realized these were some of the clocks stolen from the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art. The lawyer told him that the clocks belonged to a foreign client of hers.

Hasson immediately reported the information to the museum's board of directors, and a few hours later they arrived at the lawyer's office, only to find that the clocks had been returned to their bank vault. They showed the lawyer a catalog of the clocks and she identified some of them and confirmed that they belonged to her client, a resident of the U.K., who had inherited them following the death of her partner. The lawyer said she would be willing to return them if she were compensated financially.

The board set up a meeting with the lawyer for the next day, when she was to show them the clocks so they could confirm which items from the collection were included. But on the way back to Jerusalem, she called the board chairman, Eli Kahan and said she wanted to finish up the deal in one day and that her client had one condition: to keep her name out of it and do everything through her attorney.

The next day, the attorney showed the board three worn cardboard boxes, with the 40 rare clocks, wrapped in newspaper, including the Breguet creation for Marie Antoinette and another Breguet creation from 1819, known as the "Sympathique," which ran on a system in which a watch placed in a recess of the clock was automatically set and reset, and an 11 cm-long "pistol clock" created at the beginning of the 19th century in France.

Excitedly, the board members spent hours going over the collection. Most of the items were fairly well preserved, but some where damaged. After a brief negotiation, Kahan gave the lawyer a check of not a large amount in return for her assistance. The clocks were brought to Jerusalem and placed secretly in a safe so the story would not get out, and the police were informed of the developments.

The months that followed saw negotiations with the insurance company, which had meanwhile paid the museum's claim on the lost clocks, and work to restore the damaged clocks and prepare them for exhibition once again.

Meanwhile, the identity of the thieves remains a mystery. However they are believed unlikely to have been inveterate watch collectors, but rather local operators, at least two in number. They apparently dismantled some of the clocks, removing and selling gold and jewels. The most expensive clocks were apparently too familiar to be sold and thus remained in their possession over the years.

The clocks, which are unconnected to Islamic culture, are part of the collection of Sir David Lionel Salomons, who in 1855 became the first Jewish mayor of London. They were donated by his daughter, Mrs. Vera Francis Salomons, a British philanthropist who founded the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art and named it after her professor of Islamic studies and rector of the Hebrew University, who was also a collector of rare clocks.