Inside the Battle Over Sell-off at Israel's Museum for Islamic Art

Despite criticism, the Sotheby’s auction of precious items from the museum's collection has not been permanently canceled. A Haaretz investigation reveals a possible conflict of interest

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The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem.
The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

It’s still unclear what will become of the 268 items from Jerusalem’s Museum for Islamic Art that were slated to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in London last month. The unusual sale, comprising some 5 percent of the museum’s collection, attracted much attention from scholars and Islamic art collectors worldwide. However, it was put on hold following pressure from Culture Minister Chilli Tropper, who is endeavoring to bring the items back to Israel.

The sale has not been permanently canceled, though, and the items are still on display at Sotheby’s. They include 35 items and the rare timepiece collection of Sir David Salomons, which was stolen in 1983 and largely returned to the museum 20 years later after the government invested great effort and resources to locate the stolen items.

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

Also potentially on offer are classic antique carpets, historic edicts by sultans and rare weapons, some of which were selected for the museum’s original collection by eminent Islamic art historian Richard Ettinghausen prior to his death in 1979.

Whom do the items belong to? What exactly does the will of wealthy heiress Vera Salomons says?

Discussions are currently ongoing between the Culture Ministry, Israel’s state prosecutor, the museum and the Hermann de Stern Foundation, which finances much of the museum’s operations.

At issue: Whom do the items belong to? What exactly does the will of Vera Salomons – who began establishing the museum in the 1960s, but died before it opened in 1974 – say? And how can the sale be prevented?

The museum, formerly known as the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art, maintains that the items up for sale are owned by the Hermann de Stern Foundation, a private foundation based in Lichtenstein, and may therefore be sold. The foundation is headed by Herbert Winter, a leading figure in the Swiss-Jewish community and chairman of the museum’s board of directors.

Shortly before her death in 1969, Vera Salomons wrote a will that was filed on the island of Jersey (a British Crown dependency and tax haven). According to the information at our disposal, the will details to whom she bequeathed her many assets. Per the will, she founded four foundations in different locations around the world: the David Salomons Foundation, the Laura Julia Foundation, the Hermann de Stern Foundation and the L. A. Mayer Foundation. All are supposed to fund the museum’s operations and the acquisition of items.

The amount of the foundation’s donations to causes besides the museum is unclear, as is why the decision-makers at the foundation and the museum are the same people.

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

Vera Salomons came from a wealthy and influential family, and the foundations are named for her relatives. Her grandfather was the German banker Hermann de Stern and her grandmother, Julia Goldsmid, also came from a prominent banking family. Their daughter Laura, Vera’s mother, married David Lionel Salomons, who was also of wealthy and distinguished lineage. His uncle by the same name was a leading figure in the 19th-century struggle for Jewish emancipation in Great Britain and the first Jewish sheriff and mayor of London.

Vera Salomons’ father was the mayor of Tunbridge Wells in southeast England, chairman of the City of London Electric Company and a collector of rare clocks. The L. A. Mayer Foundation is named for Vera Salomons’ lover, the Islamic historian Leo Aryeh Mayer whose name featured in the museum’s original name.

The Hermann de Stern Foundation is involved in the financing of two old-age homes, in Jerusalem and Kfar Sava, and evidently also contributes to other places like the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot. According to the institute’s website, Winter received an honorary doctorate there and supports the institute through the Hermann de Stern Foundation. The Weizmann Institute declined to answer questions on the subject or to provide details concerning the amount of the foundation’s donations.

One of the main reasons cited by the museum for the sale of items is that the foundation has shrunk in size. Still, it’s not clear how much the foundation contributes to other organizations besides the Museum for Islamic Art and why the decision-makers at the foundation and museum are the same people.

Vera Salomons. Began establishing the museum in the 1960s, but died before it opened in 1974.

The members of the board of the old-age home in Kfar Sava – Winter, Harry Sapir and Eli Kahn – are also members of the museum’s board of trustees. In 2004, Sapir was convicted of aggravated fraud in connection with Arad Investment & Industrial Development.

Attorney Shachar Ben-Meir told Haaretz that there’s a conflict of interest in the decision-making here. “If there’s overlap between the members of the boards of the foundation and the museum, they are in a conflict of interest, because they are supposed to look after the interests of the nonprofit [that runs the museum] and not the interests of the foundation. Every decision they make should be solely for the museum’s benefit. They cannot make a decision in Entity A that serves the interests of Entity B.”

The articles of regulation of the nonprofit foundation that ran the museum until the early ’90s says that members of the foundation “shall not have the authority to lend any item from the collection or library for display anywhere else. These items may be removed from the building for repairs only.” Under the museum’s current director, Nadim Shiban, the museum library collection has also diminished, contrary to the museum’s original regulations.

Where there’s a will

The museum’s financial reports from the early ’90s indicate that the displays belong to the Laura Julia Foundation, the L.A. Mayer Foundation and the museum. In those years, the museum ran into financial difficulties and accumulated millions of shekels of debt. The nonprofit was dismantled and a new one was established, with the museum being run by a court-appointed liquidator. A 1995 financial report says that all remaining operations and assets of the museum were transferred to the administration of the Hermann de Stern Foundation in February 1995.

Accountant Doron Shorer, who was the court-appointed liquidator and ran the museum’s operations for a short while, says that as far as he knows, the assets belonged to the museum at the same time.

A 'Star' Oushak carpet, West Anatolia, second half 16th century (est. £70,000-£100,000).Credit: Sotheby's

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the foundations made their continued support contingent upon the transfer of ownership,” he told Haaretz. “I don’t know if this is permissible or if it’s compatible with the founding documents. Salomons donated the museum and the items and the old-age homes without the right of transfer and, accordingly, to the best of my recollection, all of the collections belong to the museum. If a change was made later on, I don’t know if it meets the requirements of the law and the original museum regulations.”

Prof. Amnon Lehavi, dean of the law school at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, and an expert on property law, says it’s unclear whether the assets were placed in the hands of the museum or the foundation. “This is something that only Vera Salomons’ will can reveal,” he said. “I presume that she what she wrote in the will is an endowment that defines the purposes for the uses of the assets. Usually in this situation, there are also restrictions that apply for generations on the transfer of assets. The question is what restrictions Mrs. Salomons imposed.”

Prince Regent's Breguet Resonance watch No. 2788Credit: Sotheby's

Other questions pertain to the conduct of the Israel Antiquities Authority and its apparent failure to meet the requirements of the Israel Antiquities Law. In 2018, the museum began determining which items it wished to sell and contacted the IAA last June to obtain approval to remove 145 items that were created before 1700 (which would qualify them as antiquities). No approval was requested for 130 items of later origin.

“In order to obtain an export permit for antiquities held as a private collection, the requirements of the Antiquities Law for the registration of the collection must first be met,” archaeologist Ilan Hadad, acting head of the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit, wrote in an email to the museum. He also explained to museum curator Idit Sharoni that “for registration purposes, provenance documents for each item must also be presented.”

A Sotheby’s representative is also copied in on the email correspondence, and Hadad writes that “they [Sotheby’s] are familiar with the process for filing the request.”

Hadad also included a tip for negotiating the bureaucratic process: “Since the international community is extremely sensitive about the movement and trade of items with origins in Syria and Iraq and other conflict areas, if you do not have provenance documents in your possession that clearly confirm the legal standing of items from such origins, you are exposing the museum to a lawsuit from the countries of origin with the backing of international organizations such as Interpol, the UN Security Council and others. [It would also be] placing Israel in a sensitive situation, in light of the type of accusations that are frequently made at international conferences I attend, suggesting that it encourages the theft of antiquities and the laundering of stolen cultural heritage assets.”

On July 21, Hadad wrote to Shiban and the Sotheby’s representative that, with the exception of two items, the export request was approved. It’s not clear which registration documents were presented to the IAA representative.

The museum’s current director, Nadim Shiban.Credit: Hanan Bar Assouline

In early August, the matter was also reported to the Culture Ministry – but by then it was too late. On August 9, Shirit Keessen, the ministry’s department manager for museums and visual arts, wrote to Shiban, requesting an explanation about the size of the sale and reminding him of the requirements of the Museums Law. Herbert Winter responded, explaining that the items are owned by the foundation and they had decided to sell a small part of the collection so the museum could continue to thrive.

Complex questions

Was there negligence here on the part of the IAA? Ben-Meir says the authority did not act in accordance with the Antiquities Law. Section 26 of that law says that if a museum owner wishes to liquidate a collection, he must inform the IAA and enable the state to purchase it.

“This section basically prevents the transfer and sale of items that are found in a museum in Israel, and makes this action contingent upon the sale or transfer of the item being offered to the State of Israel (through the director of the Antiquities Authority),” he explains. He also notes that approval is needed for items made before 1700 and that the culture minister has the authority to declare such items of historic value. It’s not clear whether the sale was also approved by Israel Hasson, who was director of the IAA at the time but has since resigned from that position. The IAA did not respond to a question on the matter.

The IAA justifies the sale on the grounds that the items were not created in Israel. “As soon as the IAA saw that it didn’t have the authority to instruct that the items remain in Israel, it informed the Association of Museums and the Antiquities Authority Council and launched an effort that ultimately led to the postponement of the sale of the items,” it stated.

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

This does not quite explain why the Culture Ministry was not informed of the impending sale until August. The IAA does say that, following this unusual instance, “Conclusions are currently being drawn regarding future cases, in the legal and administrative channels. For one thing, the authority will recommend the establishment of a mechanism that will include all the relevant bodies and the Culture Ministry, in which requests of this type will be discussed.”

Where do things stand now? The question of the items’ ownership is complicated and documents that would totally clarify the basic principles upon which the museum was established are still missing. Vera Salomons’ will reinforces the complexity of the ownership question.

Currently there are two possibilities: The first, if the sale goes ahead, is to reduce the number of items that are sold after a team from the Culture Ministry assesses their importance.

The second is for the sale to be canceled, with the foundation having expressed willingness for this to happen, but also fearing the financial consequences with the question arising of who would pay Sotheby’s the 1.4 million pounds sterling fine ($1.8 million) for the cancellation.

If ownership of the items is deemed to be in dispute, Sotheby’s probably will not want to hold the auction.

The Museum of Islamic Art n Jerusalem.Credit: ‎Hanan Bar Assouline

Meanwhile, the sale was also discussed in the Knesset recently in the form of parliamentary questions to Culture Minister Tropper. MK Mansour Abbas (Joint List) asked why the museum isn’t adequately funded and what the Culture Ministry has to do with this. MK Merav Michaeli (Labor) said, “The ministry should form a committee to examine how things got to this point.” Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin expressed astonishment at the sale and said, “Perhaps a rapid change in the legislation is needed. It seems unreasonable that treasures that are national assets can be sold because someone in the museum thinks this or that item is less important.”

Tropper replied that the museum does not have a deficit and never asserted that it needs assistance, unlike many other institutions that turn to the ministry for help. “We support the museum each year with more than a million shekels,” he said. “The sale has far-reaching implications and we hope we’ll succeed in postponing it, certainly in its current scope. Cultural treasures shouldn’t be treated as currency, and we’ll insist on this legally and ethically.”

Sotheby’s says it has no update on the sale, and that answers about the ownership of the items are for the museum.

The Hermann de Stern Foundation said: “The facts presented in the inquiry are incorrect since the items are not owned by the museum and never were. The art objects are owned by the Hermann de Stern Foundation that was established by Vera Salomons. There is no contradiction with Vera Salomons’ original intention. The art objects were owned by the Hermann de Stern Foundation and other foreign foundations that were all established by Vera Salomons. In 1993 and 2010, ownership of all the objects of art was transferred to the Hermann de Stern Foundation by means of legal contracts, and the assets have remained under the foundation’s ownership until today. We do not see any conflict of interest in regard to the law” for nonprofit associations.

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