Some 30 Rare Artworks Stolen From One of Israel's Oldest Museums

There is a feeling of 'violence and evil' after looting, Wilfrid Israel Museum's director says

Naama Riba
Naama Riba
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The thief of artworks in the Wilfrid Israel Museum, Kibbutz Hazorea, August 18, 2020
The thief of artworks in the Wilfrid Israel Museum, Kibbutz Hazorea, August 18, 2020Credit: Wilfrid Israel Museum staff
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

The gallery of the Wilfrid Israel Museum of Asian Art and Studies was broken into on Tuesday night and some 30 rare works of art were stolen. Many of the pieces stolen from the museum, located in Kibbutz Hazorea in the north, came from Wilfrid Israel’s personal collection.

Nurit Asher Fenig, the museum’s director, said the thieves also threw onto the floor statues and other works they didn’t steal. The room where the theft took place has a feeling of “violence and evil, and of course the amazement of who could do such a terrible thing,” she said. “The museum staff and kibbutz members are still processing the incident and the extent of the financial damage is not yet clear.”

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The museum was founded in 1951 and is one of the oldest in Israel. Originally, it was based on Wilfrid Israel’s art collections. Israel was the son of a wealthy German Jew and the great-grandson of the first chief rabbi of Britain. The family owned one of the largest and oldest department stores in Berlin before World War II.

Wilfrid Israel got in contact with the founders of Hazorea when the Nazis came to power. He was killed in 1943 when the Luftwaffe shot down the civilian passenger plane he was on over the Bay of Biscay, en route from Lisbon to Bristol, along with all the rest of the passengers. He was returning from a mission in Portugal to try to find an escape route for Jewish children via Spain,

Israel, who left Germany for England, was very active in efforts to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, and he played a significant role in the Kindertransport.

Artworks at the Wilfrid Israel Museum, Kibbutz HazoreaCredit: Wilfrid Israel Museum staff

Work on the museum began in the 1940s, and it was completed and opened in 1951. The building was designed by architects Munio Gitai Weinraub and Alfred Mansfeld, who were responsible for the design of the entire center of the kibbutz, as well as the development of the landscape and surroundings. The museum’s collection has about 1,000 works of art.

Asher Fenig said that when she arrived at the museum in the morning, she found the doors broken and the security cameras turned to the side. The alarm had been pulled out. “They were professionals. The police were here and took testimony and the forensics lab people were here. It is not clear to me who the thieves were.”

Among the works stolen was a sitting Bodhisattva from India. This was a stone statue from the second or third centuries C.E. A Buddha statue with the Snake King and Bodhisattva head from Cambodia, from the period of the Khmer Empire in 12th century, were also stolen, as was a head of the Buddha in gilded bronze from 14th or 15th century Thailand. A work of Ganseha, the Hindu god with an elephant’s head from the 17th or 18th century was also stolen.

One of the most impressive works stolen was a piece from China, made during the Tang Dynasty between the 7th and 10th centuries, of a tomb guard standing with one leg on a bull.

Such a large theft from an Israeli museum is rare. A collection of timepieces was stolen from the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem in 1963. A total of 106 rare watches and clocks worth tens of millions of dollars were stolen, including one owned by Marie Antoinette, the only one of its type in the world. The burglary was only solved in 2006, two years after the thief, Naaman Lidor (Diller), died.

Other, smaller thefts occurred in recent years, including one in 2018 at the Mishkan Museum of Art at Ein Harod, in which a sketch by Tamar Getter was stolen. A year earlier, a work by Meir Pichhadze was stolen from the Hezi Cohen Gallery in Tel Aviv.

Nava Kessler, chairwoman of the Israel Association of Museums and the Israel branch of the International Council of Museums, said it is possible to reduce the risk of theft, but “only the large museums have a budget for security at night. Most of them don’t have it. The state has not allocated money for the Museums Law since the 1980s.”

The police said they received a complaint of a break-in and theft of expensive statues. The police said they gathered evidence from the scene and opened an investigation.

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