Shame on You, Sotheby’s

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Gallery assistants pose with the painting 'La Lecon de piano' by Henri Matisse at Sotheby's in London.

The madness of the coronavirus pandemic, the insanity that towards year-end Israel still has no budget for 2020 let alone 2021, the scandal brewing over Israel’s acquisition of submarines from Germany and more all but obscured a small, yet impressive, triumph of the little man over Big Money in October.

The attempt to sell artifacts from the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem, one of the most important collections of its kind in the world, was put off following an outcry, including by the president of Israel, the minister of culture, the International Council of Museums and journalists such as Goel Pinto and Naama Riba. The uproar forced the would-be sellers, who were already counting their chickens, to take a baby step backward. Retreat is rare in conflicts of this ilk: usually Big Money couldn’t care less about the public interest.

The seller, an obscure foundation in Liechtenstein that obtained control over the museum’s collection 27 years ago by a legal agreement, it claims, explains that funding to keep the museum running is running out. Yet it was this enigmatic foundation and its battery of lawyers who blinked first, as the High Court of Justice decided to hear a petition of the Hashava Foundation on the matter. Now, as instructed by the justices, the parties are trying to reach to a compromise by the beginning of December, lest they open, as Justice Anat Baron put it, Pandora’s box.

We may assume that said box contains the conditions of the trust established by the philanthropist Vera Salomons, who founded the museum half a century ago as a tribute to her beloved, the Islam researcher Prof. Leo Aryeh Mayer, with the intention of bringing Jews and Muslims closer together through art.

The claim that a crunch at the foundation she’d established necessitates the treasures to be sold will be checked against the exact terms the philanthropist probably dictated to whoever represents her today. Precedent around the world has shown that any sale contravening the terms of the trust are liable to hound the sellers and the buyers alike for decades. Just recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art was forced to return ancient Italian artifacts it had bought 30 years earlier through Sotheby’s after the source turned out, after all these years, to be dubious.

Equally astounding is the response given to the High Court by Sotheby’s, the renowned auction house. It had the gall to argue that the treasures it sought to auction off to the highest bidder have no national, cultural or historic value for the State of Israel or the Israeli public. Unbelievable.

In addition, Sotheby’s is demanding compensation if the sale is cancelled, creating an insufferable equivalence: The sale that was ostensibly supposed to finance the museum will ultimately be held to compensate the auction house for not selling enough items? Elijah the Prophet already defined arguments of this sort: Have you sold and also inherited?

Especially dismaying is the involvement of one of Israel’s richest men, Patrick Drahi, the new owner of the London auction house, in this matter. In a profile of him published in Globes after he bought Sotheby’s, one of his associates said, “Patrick has deep and impressive knowledge of culture and art. He also collects works by young Israeli artists to help them emerge.”

So here’s some advice, Mr. Drahi. If Israeli culture and art are really do matter to you, as we would all like to believe, stop this disgrace and remove Sotheby’s from the list of those responsible for dismantling one of the rarest collections ever deposited in Jerusalem, in perpetuity. Any other decision would be amoral and an irremovable stain.

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