Now on Display at the Jerusalem Museum for Islamic Art: Selloff

Financially strained, the L.A. Mayer Museum is auctioning off dozens of rare items, despite harsh criticism: 'They’re going for the easy way out'

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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
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 alleviate its financial difficulties, the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem is auctioning off nearly five percent of its inventory of 5,525 items, including some of the most rare and unique jewels in its collection. Experts in Israel have expressed outrage at the decision and bewilderment at the reasons given for the sale of certain items, which will take place by means of a live auction in London.

The museum had begun planning this sale more than two years ago, well before the coronavirus pandemic broke out, which has severely threatened the financial situation of museums in Israel and around the world. According to the Islamic museum, the items slated for the block are owned by the Herman de Stern Foundation, a private body and the major funder of the museum’s operations.

Last week, however, Israel’s Culture and Sport Ministry attempted to stop the sale, claiming that some of the objects in question 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, Harry Sapir, a senior member of the museum’s board, told Haaretz that negotiations were being held between the foundation and Sotheby’s about a possible postponement of the auction.

A Qur'an leaf in eastern Kufic script, Persia, 11th12th century (est. £200,000-300,000)Credit: Sotheby’s

“We are not disputing the fact that there have been discussions,” Sotheby’s told Haaretz Sunday, “but it is not correct to say that the sales have been postponed.”

Thus, on Tuesday, 198 Islamic art objects will be put up for sale, in addition to the 74 watches and music boxes due to be sold on Wednesday. Thirty-five of these unique timepieces, which originally came from the collection of Sir David Salomons, a leading figure in 19th-century British Jewry, were stolen from the museum in 1983 and only 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 for all of the items up for sale, according to Sotheby’s website, is approximately $8.9 million, but experts say the total could skyrocket because of the uniqueness of some of the items.

For one, Martin Weil, former director of the Israel Museum, said he was shocked by the idea of an auction.

“The Islamic Museum is named after Prof. Leo Aryeh Mayer, who in fact founded the discipline of Islamic art. The museum’s collection is one of the most important in the world,” Weil said. “It seems that they are doing this on their own reconnaissance and that is very serious. If they really wanted to sell, the museum would have to have established a committee of experts and I don’t know if such a process took place.”

According to the museum, the process of choosing the items to be auctioned off was long and complex. The management’s first step, some time ago, was to ask Rachel Hasson, who worked at the museum for 44 years, among other roles as chief curator, to compile a list.

The museum explained to Haaretz and also to the Culture Ministry that Hasson created a long list of items from the storerooms, without noting their monetary value. In the second stage, the list was examined by three people: the museum’s general director, Nadim Sheiban, its chief curator Idit Sharoni, and the assistant to the curator and registrar, Deena Lawi. At a certain point, international experts in Islamic art and antique clocks from Sotheby’s entered the picture. The museum says that Sotheby’s staff explained that the sales potential of a good many of the items selected, which came from the storerooms, was low.

Nadim Sheiban, director of Jerusalem's L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“Experts proposed adding items from the museum’s collection itself, to reach the monetary goal that the Herman de Stern Foundation had set,” they said.

Today, Rachel Hasson says she doesn’t understand why the museum was using her name to justify the sale, noting that two years ago she had been asked to prepare a list and that no one was in touch with her afterward.

“I heard about the sale for the first time two weeks ago from a friend,” Hasson said. “Nobody consulted me. I thought they had decided against it and they had found other financial sources. I only selected things from the storerooms, items that were not in good condition, whose value was low, which had been restored. What they are proposing now are other things. Only a few of them, of relatively low value, were on the first list. I’m on the verge of tears. Some of these items are the ‘master of the master.’”

Which items, for example?

Hasson: “They’re offering for sale 36 rare weapons, which should not be sold according to the feelings or whims of one person or another. There are 17 classic ancient carpets, edicts by historic sultans, like one dealing with Jerusalem, when [Ottoman sultan] Abdul Hamid I wrote to the kadi of Jerusalem. Rare Ottoman textiles from the 16th century, and a box that came from India, inlaid with precious stones including emeralds. It was donated at the time by a French philanthropist named Nicola Landau, who contributed other items. They’re also offering 19 pages from a Koran. Some are written on parchment, before the invention of paper, plus there are pottery vessels that are irreplaceable.”

Where’s the antiquities authority?

The Islamic Museum, established in 1974 and located in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, is the brainchild of the late British Jewish philanthropist Vera Bryce Salomons, whose aim, in the 1960s, was to showcase the achievements of Islamic art and civilization. Salomons, daughter of Sir David Salomons, dedicated the museum to Prof. Leo Mayer, a renowned scholar of the archaeology and art of the Middle East, and a former rector of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 2019, the museum had 55,000 visitors, most of them high-school students from Arab communities. Its budget that year was almost 10 million shekels (about $2.9 million), having increased over recent decades (in 2002 it was 3.4 million shekels). This is a very small budget as compared to that of larger museums in Israel, like the Israel Museum (with an annual budget of 120 million shekels) or the Tel Aviv Museum (80 million shekels), but still larger than other smaller but prominent institutions like the Herzliya Museum or the Ein Harod Museum, with budgets of about 3.5 million shekels.

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

A significant amount of funding for the Museum of Islamic Art, more than 6 million shekels, has come in recent years from the Herman de Stern Foundation. The state allocates 12.1 million shekels to it and the rest comes from independent income. As opposed to most other museums in Israel, the Museum of Islamic Art does not have a deficit and therefore the Sotheby’s auction this week has raised questions from many in the field of Islamic art.

Director Sheiban told Haaretz that the de Stern foundation, which it relies on, was hit financially during the economic crisis of 2008 and that has naturally impacted the museum, he explained: “We realized that the museum needs significant support and that more money has to go into the foundation.”

Proceeds from the auction this week, among other things, are also intended to be used to develop educational activities at the museum and to upgrade its permanent exhibit, Sheiban added.

Among the items for sale are two whose estimated value is between $521,000 to $782,000. The first is a steel Egyptian helmet from the 15th century, with inscriptions in Thuluth script, arranged in a unique aesthetic style. According to the catalog, “Artistic Arabic Calligraphy,” written by Rachel Hasson and published in 1995, the helmet was apparently taken as loot in Egypt and was used later by the Ottomans. Helmets of this type were designed to be large because they were worn above a turban, whose looped sides were the inspiration for the design of the helmet, according to the catalog.

Among the timepieces to be sold are a few designed by the renowned 18th-19th century horologist, Abraham-Louis Breguet. Breguet had connections with royal houses throughout Europe; his most famous clock was designed for Marie Antoinette. One of the items to be auctioned off is a gold precision Breguet timepiece, featuring two dials, made of silver and gold in France, in 1818. It was sold to George IV while he was still Prince Regent of England, for only 350 pounds sterling.

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

Another famous clock to be sold, Sotheby’s No. 1806, was purchased by Marie Antoinette Maurat, wife of the German prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen; her father was Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother-in-law.

With regard to the sale of the timepieces, former Islamic Museum curator Hasson said that “at no point did Ms. Salomons intend for the ‘dynasty’ of Breguet watches that once belonged to her father fall into private hands. She wanted it to be housed in a museum in Jerusalem, and she could easily have donated them to any museum in Switzerland or England.”

But where is the Israel Antiquities Authority in all of this? Among the items on offer, 142 of them had to pass through its offices in order to be able to leave Israel – those that were made before 1700. The organization has criticized the auction, according to a report by Giulia Roccabella, curator of the Islamic period in the IAA’s national treasures department. She mentions a number of extremely valuable works up for sale: for example, a Mamluk panel made of eight hexagonal ceramic tiles in shades of blue and white, from the 15th century. This item is worth between $26,000 and $39,000, writes Roccabella, and is of great importance in understanding the material culture of the late Mamluk period in the region, and thus inseparably connected to Israel and its history. Another item noted is a ceramic tombstone of the Persian dynasty from the 17th century, which is unique in Israel.

‘Selling its children’

Michael Saban, director of national treasures at the IAA, told Haaretz that he regretted that he could not prevent the museum’s works from leaving the country, because Israel’s Antiquities Law only forbids the export from Israel of items originating in this country.

Princess Murat’s Thermometer Watch No. 1806 sold to the Princess Murat on 25th May 1807 for 4000 francsCredit: Sotheby’s

“We were able to prevent the export of two items, a glass vessel and a glazed tile, apparently from the Al Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem],” said Dr. Saban, who added that the move by the Museum of Islamic Art is unprecedented, because “the role of the museum is to preserve objects for future generation.” In every museum most of the collection is not even on display, but the Islamic museum choose items for sale that are, and are also worth a great deal of money.

“We are angry and shocked,” Saban said, adding, “they’re going for the easy way out. The museum is selling its children and the appetite will grow, in time.”

Local Islamic art experts have been angered by the reasons director Sheiban has given for selecting certain items for sale. Sheiban, a social worker by profession, was appointed to manage the museum in 2014 after holding a number of posts in the Jerusalem Municipality and serving on the board of a number of museums.

On a Kan Broadcasting Company radio show about culture, Sheiban told the host, Goel Pinto, that the main consideration for selecting the items was to avoid touching the core of the most important and internationally acclaimed objects at the museum.

“What we chose for sale are a few warriors’ helmets, because I don’t sanctify war and in any case I’ve already closed the weapons gallery. And we’re also selling art objects that have copies and those that are displayed less,” he told Pinto.

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

Hannah Targan, an expert in Islamic Art at Tel Aviv University, told Haaretz she was surprised to hear the reasons given by Sheiban, whom she says lacks background in art history.

“You can’t say that art objects that are rare, made hundreds of years ago in royal courts – that they have copies,” Prof. Targan said. “It’s also surprising that he describes the historic helmets and swords that he transferred to Sotheby’s as representing war that goes against his principles of peace. After all, this isn’t his private collection. This is one of the richest and most interesting collections in the world and I am very angry at the state for allowing this sale to go ahead. Everything must be done so that this never happens again.”

Sheiban explained to Haaretz, in response, that he selected works whose absence will not hurt the general collection. “I didn’t mean that the items are copies of each other, but that in every period we’ve kept an item made of the same materials or with the same decorative elements. I invite any expert to come after the auction and check. If I’ve fatally hurt the collection, I will put my keys on the table and go home.”

Moreover, he added, “I could have chosen fewer items, but those whose value is high. I could have sold 10 Breguet timepieces and brought the museum $39 million. Or sold the Harari silver collection. Obviously, my heart aches over everything.”

Regarding the sale of the swords and helmets, Sheiban said: “There was a gallery full of swords. In this hall, Jews and Arabs sat together and confronted peace. I, who come from a place that’s focused on life, found it hard to see all these weapons around children who are trying to mend the rifts and I took these items to the storeroom.”

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

Culture Ministry criticism

The auction of works from the Islamic Museum of Art has sparked opposition even among those who don’t tend to criticize the activities of museums. On October 15, the director of the department of museums and plastic arts in the Culture Ministry, Shirit Keessen, wrote a letter to Sheiban, informing him that the ministry is considering cutting its support to his institution. She noted the recognition the museum has received and the assumption that the funding it’s been offered because of that would maintain the permanence of its collection.

“The items that are being offered today for sale constituted the core of the recognition of the museum; this included the collection of the museum and without this collection the museum would not have been granted recognition according to laws and protocol.”

Keessen wrote Sheiban that an urgent meeting should be held with the minister of culture, in lieu of a council dealing with museum affairs that is supposed to be formed but whose members have yet to be appointed.

Sheiban, for his part is angry, at the Culture Ministry, which has not properly funded museums to the point where they have to take action of the kind he’s been forced to take. “During this period of the coronavirus I have received nothing from the state. I lost 2 million shekels and I got nothing.”

A fine Ottoman tombak chamfron, Turkey, 17th century Credit: Sotheby’s

However, Sheiban says he regrets that he did not inform the Culture Ministry of the sale earlier.

“Maybe that was a mistake. I wasn’t aware that I had to inform them. The former director general of the Culture Ministry, Galit Wahba-Shasho, visited here and I told her about our distress. I told her that we should be recognized as a special museum, like the Museum of the Diaspora” in Tel Aviv.

The Association of Museums and the International Council of Museums Israel is to hold a meeting on Tuesday, the day of the auction, dealing with museum ethics. A memorandum about the gathering states that ICOM Israel rejects the sale of art from museums to private collections, because “the main role and responsibility of museums is to curate and maintain cultural assets and treasures for society and future generations.” Such sales, the memorandum adds, “harms cultural assets and leads to a loss of faith by the public. Even if a museum finds itself in economic distress, the museum’s staff must act in a way that preserves and protects the objects in its possession and under its responsibility, and propose their sale to another [local] museum to ensure that they remain in the public domain.”

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