Qatari-owned Group to Pay Sotheby's to Return Islamic Artifacts to Jerusalem Museum

Naama Riba
Naama Riba
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The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, last year
The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, last yearCredit: Emil Salman
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Months after the postponement of the public sale of 268 artifacts from the collection of the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, a solution is in the offing. Haaretz has learned that following months-long negotiations, a foundation belonging to a member of Qatar’s Al Thani family is expected to pay compensation to the Sotheby’s auction house because of the sale’s cancellation, and the items will be returned from London to Israel.

As part of the foundation’s involvement, the museum will loan it an important item from the collection for a long-term exhibition in Paris.

Artifacts in the Museum for Islamic Art, in Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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The Al Thani Foundation, founded by Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani, owns a collection of various works of art from several historical periods and cultures, and has loaned items for exhibitions in the world’s most important museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Grand Palais in Paris and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

At present, the foundation, which is based in Europe, is planning to dedicate an exhibition space of about 400 square meters in the Hotel de la Marine, near the Place de la Concorde in Paris, where the item to be borrowed from the museum will be put on display.

Objects exhibited at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The item is a silver pitcher from Iran dating to the late 11th century, part of a rare and valuable hoard of 20 intricate silver vessels from the collection of Ralph Harari, an expert on Islamic metal vessels. In the catalogue of items from the collection, Rachel Hasson, formerly curator of the museum, described how “on the body of the pitcher are snail-like decorations and images of peacocks, and around its neck is a strip decorated with racing animals. Two blessings are inscribed on the pitcher – for example: ‘A complete blessing and eternal wealth and an abundance of happiness and absolute security and eternal grace to the owner.’”

The sale scheduled for last October was supposed to include 194 items of Islamic art and 74 timepieces and music boxes from the museum’s collection. Thirty-five of the clocks are from the unique collection of Sir David Salomons, which was stolen in 1983 and returned to the museum about 20 years later. The items constitute about 5 percent of the entire collection. The sale was initiated by the Hermann de Stern Foundation, the principal donor to the Museum of Islamic Art, ostensibly in order to enable the continued existence of the institution for many years to come, although it is not suffering from a deficit. The Israel Antiquities Authority approved the removal of the items from Israel.

An early Iznik blue and white calligraphic pottery hanging ornament, Turkey, circa 1480 (est. £200,000-300,000)Credit: Sotheby’s

But after opposition by the International Council of Museums Israel and the intervention of Culture Minister Chili Tropper, as well as President Reuven Rivlin, the sale was postponed. In November, the Hashava organization – which is dedicated to locating and returning works of art looted in the Holocaust – petitioned the High Court of Justice against the sale. The petition claimed that the various groups involved in the sale – the Culture Ministry, the Antiquities Authority, the museum, the Hermann de Stern Foundation, Sotheby’s and even the Israeli attorney general – did not comply with the laws on museums and antiquities.

The court granted the petition and sent the parties to negotiations, which dragged on. During the discussions there was a suggestion to compromise and to sell only part of the items offered in the original sale, but the Culture Ministry and Tropper opposed the sale in its entirety .

A silver-inlaid Aqqoyunlu turban helmet, Turkey or Persia, second half 15th century (est. £400,000-£600,000).Credit: Sotheby's

As part of the legal processת attorney Meir Heller, who represents Hashava, said that the number of items that were to be sold was larger than originally claimed. “Although the catalogue repeats the familiar number of 268 lots – in other words, the number of items declared by the foundation – the catalogue itself shows that some of those lots are of multiple items.” According to Heller, 383 items were supposed to go on sale, rather than 268.

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