Jerusalem's Museum of Islamic Art to Auction 268 Precious Items, Despite Outcry

Five percent of the Jerusalem museum's collection will be auctioned at Sotheby's London, including rare Breguet watches

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A silver-inlaid Aqqoyunlu turban Helmet, Turkey or Persia, second half of 15th century, estimated at 400,000-6000,000 GBP ($520,000-$780,000).
A silver-inlaid Aqqoyunlu turban Helmet, Turkey or Persia, second half of 15th century, estimated at 400,000-6000,000 GBP ($520,000-$780,000).Credit: Sotheby's
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

A magnificent Turkish carpet, a unique Egyptian helmet and a rare gold Breguet clock – these are three of 268 art and archaeology objects to be sold this week by the British auction house Sotheby’s.

In order to assuage its financial difficulties, the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art is auctioning nearly five percent of its lot of 5,525 items, including the rare and unique jewels of its collection. Experts in Israel have expressed outrage at the decision and bewilderment at the reasons given for the sale of certain items.

The museum had begun planning the sale more than two years ago, much before the coronavirus pandemic broke out, threating the financial state of museums in Israel and around the world. According to the museum, the items are owned by the private Hermann de Stern Foundation, which is the major entity funding the museum's operations.

"שעון דו־מנגנוני" שנוצר בצרפת ב–1818, קוטרו 63 מילימטרים והוא עשוי זהב וכסף. גם מחירו מוערך ב–400–600 אלף פאונד
Breguet gold precision watch constructed on the principle of resonance with two dials, estimated at 400,000 - 600,000 GBP ($521,000 - $780,000).Credit: Sotheby's

Last week, Israel's Culture and Sport Ministry attempted to stop the sale, claiming that some of the objects do not belong to the foundation, but to the museum. Minister Hili Tropper commented Sunday that his office will employ "all public and legal means to prevent the sale of the inalienable assets” of the museum.

Last week, negotiations between the foundation and Sotheby’s reportedly led to a postponement of the auction. However, according to Sotheby’s advertising, the auction is still taking place on October 27.

A Safavid polychrome pottery tombstone tile, Persia, dated 1022 AH / 1613 AD, estimated at 12,000 -18,000 GBP ($15,000 - $23,000).
A Safavid polychrome pottery tombstone tile, Persia, dated 1022 AH / 1613 AD, estimated at 12,000 -18,000 GBP ($15,000 - $23,000).Credit: Sotheby's

Harry Sapir, a senior member of the museum’s board of directors, confirmed to Haaretz that negotiations had taken place. The museum and Sotheby's have yet to comment on the reported postponement of the auction. 

On Tuesday, 198 items of Islamic art objects will be put for sale, in addition to 74 watches and musical boxes, which will be offered on Wednesday. Thirty-five of the watches are from the unique collection of Sir David Salomons, which were stolen from the museum in 1983 and recovered decades later. Among the items on offer, 59 were on display and the rest were in the museum storerooms.

At the moment the maximum price of the items on the auction house’s website is approximately $8.9 million, but experts say the cumulative price could skyrocket because of the unique items offered to the highest bidder.

Sotheby's said in response: "We are not disputing the fact that there have been discussions, but it is not correct to say that sales have been postponed."

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