A total of 165 archaeological artifacts collected by Moshe Dayan will be auctioned off Sunday morning at a small auction house in the U.S., but prices are being kept down in part because the former general and chief of staff may not have excavated them legally.
The items are part of 200 glass and pottery vessels from the collection of Irving Bernstein, a United Jewish Appeal leader who was close to Dayan before he died in 1981.
According to Bernstein's heirs, who initiated the auction, Dayan sold or gave Bernstein the items.
As far as was known, Dayan left his private collection to his second wife Rachel, who sold it in 1986 to the Israel Museum for $1 million. Rachel Dayan said at the time she kept 15 items. The sale was widely criticized because many of the items were obtained illegally. The late archaeologist Yigal Shiloh said that selling the items to the museum was tantamount to approving the robbery of antiquities.
The head of the Thomaston Place auction house in Maine, Kaja Veilleux, told Haaretz yesterday that interest in the sale had not been great. The price of several items, some bearing labels in Dayan's own handwriting, were being offered at relatively low starting prices of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Veilleux said prices were low because the items in question were not particularly rare or expensive. He said items would be sold even if the highest price offered was only $100.
An archaeologist, Professor Amos Kloner, told Haaretz that he did not think there was much public interest in items coming from the Dayan collection. "To the best of my knowledge, no artifact in the collection came from a legal excavation, which to my mind considerably reduces their value."
Dayan, whose interest in archaeology stemmed from the bond he felt to the Bible, as was reflected in the title of his book "Living with the Bible," began collecting antiquities in the 1950s. Over 30 years he collected some 1,000 artifacts and placed them in the yard of his home, one of the largest private antiquities collections in the country.
Among items that were said to have given international importance to the collection were anthropomorphic coffins from Dir al-Balah in the Gaza Strip and a stone mask from the Neolithic period that Dayan said he bought from an antiquities dealer in Hebron.
In 1968, Dayan was seriously injured during an excavation he was conducting at Yazur near Ramle. But he continued his efforts and did not shrink from taking advantage of his position to further his collection. During his terms as general, chief of staff and defense minister, he often used those under his command to collect artifacts.
The Israeli establishment turned a blind eye to his activities, and archaeologists feared confronting him publicly. To those who questioned him, Dayan would say "you should complain to the police."
Many archaeologists, and Dayan's first wife Ruth, said it would have been proper for the collection to have been given to the state for free. The museum said in response that the collection's purchase by private donors prevented its being sold to collectors abroad who would have paid double for it.
According to one of Bernstein's sons, Bernstein, the all-powerful executive vice-president of the UJA from 1971 to 1984, "was a trusted adviser to many of Israel's leaders and is still considered a legendary figure in national and international Jewish affairs." Bernstein died in 1997.
According to Bernstein's biography, which will be distributed to auction participants, "the artifacts have a well-established provenance, having passed through very few hands. They were unearthed and either sold to Mr. Bernstein through a State Authorized Antiquities Dealer in Jerusalem or gifted to him by his close friend, General Moshe Dayan. As a favor to Mr. Bernstein, many of the pieces have been identified, autographed and dated by Dayan himself."
People involved in the sale told Haaretz that Bernstein's sons kept the rarest items for themselves and sold the rest "to make room."