Israeli Court Holds Up Auction of Historic Recordings, Presidential Memorabilia

State requested a restraining order to prevent sale that includes historic recordings from state’s founding, Sadat’s visit, and items from the estate of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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For sale: The reel of the recording of the ceremony declaring the state of Israel on May 14, 1948.
For sale: The reel of the recording of the ceremony declaring the state of Israel on May 14, 1948. Credit: Screenshot/Pentagon Auction House
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

An Israeli court issued on Thursday a stay holding up the auction, set for Saturday, of several historical items deemed to be of public and national importance.

The items include reels of recordings of the declaration of Israel, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit and interviews with public figures, all from the state broadcast authority’s archive. They also include an ivory key that Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president, received on a visit to Africa in 1962 and a notebook classified as “secret” containing a summary of the 1956 Sinai campaign two days after it ended.

As Haaretz reported last month, the items appeared on the website of auction house Pentagon, which is based in Petah Tikva.

The stay was issued at the request of the state prosecutor, which stated that it was moving to prevent “the disappearance of items constituting state property of historic and cultural importance from the public sphere,” and “to prevent irreparable damage.” The prosecutor stated the items constitute “a stage of Israel’s history and their place is in the state’s hands.”

Israel's second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, sitting in his office in 1958. Credit: Fritz Cohen/GPO

The stay does not include other items from Ben-Zvi’s estate slated for the auction, including his will, a family photo album and silverware etched with his monogram. The state prosecutor argues that the items held up from the auction “regrettably ended up outside the state’s hands” and that “it’s uncertain who the sellers are.”

A Haaretz investigation found that the second president’s family sold the items from his estate to an antiques dealer. Ben-Zvi’s granddaughter told Haaretz that the sale was “a regrettable mishap.” The tape reels, it turned out, had been stored originally in the Israel television building in Jerusalem before the broadcast authority was dismantled.

Pentagon’s owner Eyal Iliya told Haaretz he acquired the items up for sale from various clients, who he says bought them or received them legally. Regarding Ben-Zvi’s estate, Iliya said he saw the signed sale agreement between the former president’s family and the buyer. Iliya asserted that the tape reels were discarded in the trash during the transition from the Broadcast Authority to the Kan Broadcasting Corporation, and therefore the public auction “saved history.” He added, “The state institutions don’t know how to preserve their own treasures.”

Kan commented the tapes never made it to its archive, stating that “the broadcast authority’s receiver was legally responsible upon its closing to transfer the materials in organized fashion to the corporation.”

Some of the items being auctioned off, including a pipe, an ivory key and a historic recording. Credit: Screenshot/Pentagon Auction House

The state has intervened to halt the public sales of historical items of national importance. The archives law is unclear about which items qualify as being of such public importance that they must be put in state hands. The state attorney general’s office is reviewing the legality of sales of such items, aiming to amend the 1955 law.

Last summer, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit petitioned the Jerusalem District Court to stop the sale of a notebook containing rabbinical court rulings from the Bergen-Belsen displaced person camp so it could go to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial instead. Last year, the High Court of Justice ordered that a draft of Israel’s declaration of independence be handed over to the state archive before it could be auctioned off by the family of the Jerusalem lawyer who wrote it. The court ruled then in its precedent-setting decision that there is a duty to return cultural assets and that this was a clear case of “unique public interest.”