An Impossible Watch Heist, Now on Display at Jerusalem Museum

The Islamic Museum shows off wide variety of unique timepieces. However, watches stolen during a daring raid 32 years ago may steal the show.

Ilene Prusher
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'The Art of Time' exhibit in Jerusalem.Credit: Hanan Bar Assouline
Ilene Prusher

Sometimes you misplace your watch. Sometimes a particularly deft thief grabs a piece of your jewelry without your noticing until it’s too late. 

But it’s hard to imagine how an entire watch collection could go missing, stealthily snatched in the night from a museum display in one of the most upscale neighborhoods of Jerusalem, around the block from the President’s House.

That’s precisely what happened on a quiet night in April 1983. Someone who knew exactly what he was doing and what he was taking made his way into the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art and made off with more than half of the Sir David Salomons collection of rare watches and clocks. The crown jewel of them is no. 160 in the collection, a perpétuelle – a self-winding watch – made for Marie Antoinette. The exquisite gold-and-rock crystal watch was designed by Abraham-Louis Breguet, the Swiss master watchmaker. Now considered on the world’s most famous timepieces and valued at almost $30 million Euros, it was so many years in the making that the Queen of France never did get to enjoy the thing before being executed in 1792.

Now, however, anyone who breezes through Jerusalem this summer can enjoy seeing it and many of the other antique pieces in the collection on display at the Islamic Museum, which has been undergoing a 1.5 million shekel renovation project under the leadership of Nadim Sheiban, who took over as general director less than a year ago. Although the watches, clocks and other unique timepieces dating as far back as 17th century Istanbul are listed under the title, “The Art of Time,” it just may be the art of the story that is the attraction when it comes to this unusual exhibit.

'The Art of Time' exhibit in Jerusalem. Photo by Hanan Bar Assouline

After all, how did one man by the name of Na’aman Diller manage to get 101 rare timepiece out of a museum without being stopped? That much something of a mystery. 

“He was clever, for sure, and he was on his own. He started working by night, and he brought in some of the instruments he needed to get the watches out of the display cases. Maybe the guard didn’t do his work as he should,” says Sheiban, raising his eyebrows with a smile as he gives his visitor a tour of the nearly dark room where the new exhibit is being shown. Only the timepieces themselves are lit, quite dramatically so, suspended in time as if being held at the proper tilt an aristocratic owner would have held them in order to check the hour. In an age when having your own personal watch was a mark of great privilege, each piece is itself a work of art.

“So Diller just packed up all the watches and took them out, and some of the watches found their way to Paris, Holland, to other places and to Tel Aviv,” Sheiban explains. 

Diller, it turns out, was a high-stakes thief well-known to the police. Realizing that he could only sell a few of the watches, he packed many of them away in a warehouse in Tel Aviv, apparently deciding he would figure out how to profit from his cache later. He eventually made to the U.S., where he married his long-time girlfriend just before he died of cancer in 2004. When he saw his time was running short, he told her about the watches he’d stolen, some of which he’d disassembled for safe keeping. When his wife, Nili Shomrat, came to Tel Aviv trying to sell a number of the watches in 2006, a dealer recognized some of them and called Rachel Hasson, the museum’s artistic director. 

'The Art of Time' exhibit in Jerusalem. Photo by Hanan Bar Assouline

And then the story really began to unwind. 

Israeli police found Shomrat’s Los Angeles home with paintings taken in the robbery displayed prominently on the wall, “a number of music boxes and watches, as well as original labels from the Museum, false passports, and the stamps of various countries’ border police,” writes Hasson in a forward to the book that accompanies the exhibit. “But the investigators made their most astonishing discovery in safes which they located in Paris, where more than forty watches and musical boxes, among the collection’s finest, were found.” It later emerged that Diller stowed away stolen watches in safes not only in Israel, but also in Germany, Holland and the United States.

Of the 101 watches stolen, 88 were recovered and 13 have disappeared without a trace. 

What does this lost-and-found little shrine to time have to do with Islam? Nothing, really. The museum’s founder was Vera Salomons, who decided to dedicate the museum to her friend and teacher, Prof. Leo Arie Mayer of the Hebrew University. The watch collection had originally belonged to her uncle, Sir David Salomons, the first Jewish mayor of London. Thus his niece inherited the collection and brought it to Jerusalem, finding a permanent home for it in a museum otherwise devoted to Islamic art.

Could a horological heist like this ever happen again? “Unlikely,” says Sheiban, tapping on a heavy steel door that looks like it could sustain a ten-ton bomb. “This whole exhibit room is a safe.”

Nadim Sheiban. Photo by Hanan Bar Assouline