Up for Grabs: The Personal Belongings of an Israeli President

Auction house calls the purchase of items from the estate of Israel's second president a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’

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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

Personal items belonging to Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s president from 1952 to 1963, some of which are of the greatest national and public significance, are to be auctioned for thousands of dollars. The state has been trying to prevent the sale of such objects and a law on the matter is now in the works. In this case, the auction house, Pentagon, acquired them from a seller who bought them from the Ben-Zvi family.

Among the items is Ben-Zvi’s will, family albums, his pipes and Kiddush cups engraved with his name which he received when he was president. The sale, which includes other historic items, is planned for the end of November. The auction house did not respond to Haaretz’s request for a comment, and as is usual in such cases, it did not publish the names of the sellers or the source of the objects.

The starting price for the will of Ben-Zvi and his wife Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, is $3,000. The caption to the will states: “Very rare, completely a museum object, opportunity of once in a lifetime to possess the will of Israel’s president.” The auction house is trying to sell one of Ben-Zvi’s pipes at a starting price of $1,000. The caption describes the pipe as having: “slight teeth marks.”

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

Another lot on offer is an ivory key that Ben-Zvi received as a gift from a mayor of a city in Liberia in 1962. The auction house stated that the object remained in Ben-Zvi’s possession because it was given to him before the so-called Gifts Law was passed, which restricts the ability of public figures to keep personal gifts. Also to be auctioned is a family album belonging to Ben-Zvi’s son, Eli, who died in the War of Independence.

Along with the personal items belonging to Ben-Zvi and his family, are objects of national and public importance, among them recordings from the archive of the former Israel Broadcasting Authority (now Kan Broadcasting Corporation). Among these is a tape recording of the ceremony declaring Israel’s independence, described as a copy that was made from the original tape. The opening bid for this item is $50,000. The caption states: “Opportunity of once in a lifetime to possess the history of the State of Israel.” Other recordings to be sold include a film of the visit of President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977, along with interviews with Prime Minister Golda Meir and Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff Haim Bar-Lev and Yigael Yadin. Also on offer is the draft of a speech in Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s own handwriting, dealing with the danger to world Jewry at the height of World War II.

In recent years the state has attempted to stop the auction of historic items of national value. The legality of such purchases is now under scrutiny by the attorney general’s office, which is working on updating a law passed in 1955 that does not specifically ban the sale of such items.

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

Last summer, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit asked the Jerusalem District Court for an order to stop a Holocaust-era relic from being offered for sale at a public auction and that it be turned over to Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial instead. The item was a notebook releasing from marriage women in the Bergen-Belsen displaced person camps whose husbands were missing and presumed dead.

Last year, the High Court of Justice ordered a draft of Israel’s Declaration of Independence to be handed over to the State Archives. The draft had also been offered for auction by the family of the pre-state official who wrote it. The precedent-setting ruling stated that “the obligation to return cultural assets” was a “public interest of broad and unique significance.”

Yael Ilan, Ben-Zvi’s granddaughter, told Haaretz that the sale was an “unfortunate mishap.” After the death of her mother, who was married to Ben-Zvi’s son Amram, the family sold some of her possessions to a person who handles estate sales, and from there the items reached the auction house.

“The items weren’t sorted properly,” Ilan said. “We didn’t know there was anything valuable there. It makes us very sad, but there was nothing to be done. We took the photos that we wanted, but in retrospect it turns out that there were one or two things [that should have been kept].”

With regard to the items that Ben-Zvi received from the mayor of a city in Africa, also on sale now, Ilan said: “We didn’t know it was ivory. We asked the children if anyone wanted it. Nobody wanted it; it didn’t look good either.”

Kan Broadcasting said with regard to the tapes: “The original is in the Kol Israel Archive. As for the copy, which never reached the corporation, an inquiry should be made to the receiver of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which upon its closure is responsible by law to transfer all materials in an organized fashion to the corporation.”

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