A Jerusalem court on Sunday issued a restraining order halting the sale of a rare handwritten letter by early Zionist leader Joseph Trumpeldor on suspicion that the letter was stolen decades ago from the Tel Aviv-based Jabotinsky Institute.
The letter, written in 1915 to a father whose son was killed while serving in a Jewish military unit in World War I, is the only known letter from Trumpeldor written in Hebrew, according to King David Auctions of Jerusalem, which had offered it for auction on behalf of an owner who was only identified as Zohar. It includes language tha arguably foretells Trumpeldor's own last words at battle at Tel Hai in 1920, "It is good to die for our country."
The letter had been due to be auctioned on Monday at an opening bid of $100,000, but efforts to sell it are now on hold until the ownership of the letter is clarified by the Jerusalem District Court.
Trumpeldor's letter was written to Yehoshua Wertheimer, whose son Benjamin, the scion of a Jerusalem family, was killed while serving in present-day Turkey in a Jewish volunteer battalion that Trumpeldor established. Trumpeldor wrote: "Your son fell as a hero for the Jewish people and the Land of Israel."
A photograph of the letter that was posted on the auction house's website and featured in the media shows a seal stamped on it bearing the name of the Beitar Museum, which ultimately became the Jabotinsky Institute. The institute sent King David Auctions a demand letter that stated that the staff of the institute had been surprised to find the letter missing from its archives. The institute alleged that it had been stolen.
The Jabotinsky Institute has said that Trumpeldor's letter, along with others, had been given to the institute decades ago by his fiancée, Esther Uzieli. The institute's director, Gideon Mitshnik, filed a complaint with the police over the missing item and also contacted King David Auctions, which put him in touch with Zohar, the purported owner of the letter.
Zohar confirmed that the item had been owned by the Jabotinsky Institute but claimed that after the institute encountered financial problems, it had been sold to an American Jewish purchaser and was later acquired by Zohar. The institute has cast doubt on this account, however, and claims that the Trumpeldor letter had never been offered for sale.
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For its part, the auction house said that it is not a party to the dispute and the item has not been in the institute's possession for about 60 years. "It is very difficult to know with certainty what adventures the important item underwent from then to now, and perhaps it was sold legally at some stage, or had only been lent to the archives from the beginning, or something similar," the auction house wrote.
"It is possible that through litigation between the parties, at the appropriate court levels, it will become clearer what transpired with the item during this period, and it's possible that due to the many years [that have passed], we will never know. The auction house expresses its confidence in the two sides, both the honest seller, who had provided the item to us for sale, and the Jabotinsky Institute."