High Court Delays Controversial Sale of Rare Islamic Artifacts by Israeli Museum

Auction of items from Jerusalem’s Museum for Islamic Art was put on hold Wednesday after a petition questioned the legal validity of the sale and ownership of the artifacts

Naama Riba
Naama Riba
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A Qur'an leaf in eastern Kufic script, Persia, 11th12th century (est. £200,000-300,000), one of the items the museum is looking to auction off at Sotheby's.
A Qur'an leaf in eastern Kufic script, Persia, 11th12th century (est. £200,000-300,000), one of the items the museum is looking to auction off at Sotheby's. Credit: Sotheby's
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

The High Court of Justice on Wednesday suspended the sale of 268 items from Jerusalem’s Museum for Islamic Art, which had been scheduled to take place at Sotheby’s in London next week, after hearing a petition calling for a temporary injunction to stop the artifacts being auctioned off.

The petition was filed by Hashava – a Holocaust restitution company that deals with the recovery of art stolen during the Shoah – and presented by attorney Meir Heller from the E. Landau Law Offices.

The petition named Culture Minister Chili Tropper and his ministry, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, the Israel Antiquities Authority (which approved the export of the items for sale), the Museum for Islamic Art, the Hermann de Stern Foundation (which ostensibly owns the artifacts slated for sale) and Sotheby’s.

The court recommended that the museum, foundation, Sotheby’s and the Culture Ministry take the next two weeks to negotiate over holding a more limited auction, featuring items that are considered less important in the eyes of the ministry. If no agreement is forthcoming, all parties will reconvene in the High Court within a further 10 days. At that time, the ministry may ask for the entire sale to be postponed.

The court refused to discuss the question of to whom the artifacts belong.

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

The main questions under discussion are whether different agencies, such as the museum and the IAA, violated the law regulating museums and antiquities, and who the rightful owner is of the artifacts. Another question concerns whether the museum is a private organization that is not obligated by public regulations.

The auction was initially supposed to take place in late October, but was postponed due to public pressure and following the intervention of Culture Minister Tropper and President Reuven Rivlin. A subsequent auction date was then set for November 25.

The items scheduled to be sold constitute 5 percent of the museum’s collection, and include 194 Islamic artifacts and 74 rare timepieces and music boxes from the collection of David Salomons, the father of museum founder Vera Salomons.

The museum started taking shape in the 1960s and eventually opened in 1974. In order to finance operations and acquisitions, Vera Salomons established four foundations, located in Lichtenstein, the United States and Britain. The Hermann de Stern Foundation, located in Lichtenstein, is the only one still involved in running the museum.

A Jerusalem memorial

The issue of ownership over the museum artifacts remains unresolved, judging by documents submitted to the court, since no original documents relating to the financing by these foundations were presented. Moreover, there is no documentation showing where Vera Salomons wished the items to be placed permanently.

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

Haaretz has talked to several people who are familiar with the museum’s operations in its early days. They say Salomons and other donors never intended for the artifacts to be scattered around the world.

Prof. Miriam Rosen-Ayalon, the most senior Israeli authority on Islamic art, acquired her education at the Sorbonne. Starting in 1958, she worked in the Islamic Art department at the Louvre Museum. She met Vera Salomons in Paris in the early ’60s, at the behest of Salomons, who was considering establishing a museum. Rosen-Ayalon recounts that Salomons talked at that meeting about her plan to set up a museum of Islamic art in Jerusalem, which would also be a center of research and study in memory of Prof. L.A. Mayer (after whom the museum is formally named).

Salomons asked Rosen-Ayalon to be the director of the future museum, according to Rosen-Ayalon, who says she couldn’t accept the position because she had become a faculty member at the Hebrew University in 1963.

The ties between the two continued during Rosen-Ayalon’s term at the Louvre, and she kept recommending items she deemed worthy of adding to the collection. Rosen-Ayalon says Salomons explicitly intended to keep the collection – which was growing thanks to the help of Prof. Richard Ettinghausen – in its permanent location in Jerusalem.

“She would definitely not wish for these items to be sold,” Rosen-Ayalon asserts. “She built this splendid enterprise in Jerusalem, and there’s no doubt she wanted the collection to remain there – both due to her ties to Israel and as a memorial to Prof. Mayer,” she adds.

Ruth Cheshin, who headed the Jerusalem Foundation for decades and was present at key moments in the world of philanthropy, met Vera Salomons shortly before the latter’s death in 1969. She argues that when you look at Salomons’ activity, you realize she wanted the artifacts to stay in Jerusalem.

“These are irreplaceable items, and she chose one of the biggest experts in the field, Prof. Richard Ettinghausen, to put the collection together,” she says. “It’s unlikely she would have chosen him had she thought the items would be scattered around the world. These are treasures. No amount of money matches their value,” she adds.

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

‘Against my grandfather’s wishes’

A further issue is that several of the items up for auction were donated by different people, such as “Mr. Swelheim” from the Netherlands, Nicolas Landau from Paris and Gerard Arnhold from Brazil.

Other items up for sale were donated by Joseph Soustiel. His granddaughter Laure Soustiel, an expert on Islamic art, tells Haaretz she was “shocked and saddened” upon hearing about the auction. “I felt helpless and did not know what to do or whom to contact to [express] my sorrow,” she wrote in an email, adding, “I didn’t think something could be done to question the sale.”

She states that her grandfather would regard the auction as “totally contrary to the principles” that guided the foundation of the museum. “I believe this sale is against my grandfather’s wishes, as he would never have wanted this to happen,” she writes.

Laure Soustiel didn’t attend the museum opening in 1974, but visited the residence of then-President Ephraim Katzir in 1977 at age 13. Her family was invited as a show of appreciation for their donations to the museum.

She says she heard her family talking about the museum, and that her grandfather also donated to Haifa’s National Maritime Museum, as well as to French national museums, since he knew that donated artifacts would remain there forever. “I am sure my grandfather was convinced that it would be the same for the Mayer museum and none of its pieces would ever be sold,” she states. She adds that Joseph Soustiel was “proud” to donate to the museum, because he “loved the philosophy of Vera Salomons, which reflected his own history.”

A deal between two private entities

The museum and the Hermann de Stern Foundation attached several agreements previously made with the other foundations to the documents they submitted to the High Court. The last one dates from 2010, stating that ownership of the artifacts was transferred to the Hermann de Stern Foundation in Lichtenstein.

In their response, written by the Agmon & Co., Rosenberg Hacohen & Co. law firm, they state that ownership over the collection was never the museum’s, and they were consolidated with the dwindling of the foundation’s assets. This argument contradicts reports by the museum that were presented to government bodies that no documents regarding the establishment of these foundations were ever presented.

The museum, the foundation and Sotheby’s contended that the auction was a deal between two private agencies: the Hermann de Stern Foundation in Lichtenstein and Sotheby’s in London. They said they were not clear why anyone had the right to intervene. According to the museum and the foundation, they didn’t require the Culture Ministry’s approval in order to sell off items from the museum. Moreover, they argued that the court shouldn’t be dealing with ownership issues since this is strictly a civil-commercial matter.

A timepiece from David Salomons' collection, which may or may not go under the auctioneer's hammer at Sotheby's. Credit: Sotheby's

The foundation stated that the facts being presented to the court were wrong, “since the artifacts aren’t owned by the museum and never were. They belong to the Hermann de Stern Foundation that was established by Vera Salomons. There’s no contradiction with her original wishes; the items were under their ownership, along with other foundations set up by Salomons.

“In 1993 and 2010, ownership over all the artifacts was transferred to the foundation through legal contracts, and the assets have remained under the foundation’s ownership to this day. We see no violation of the law regulating nongovernmental organizations.”

The law firm representing Sotheby’s – Erdinast, Ben Nathan, Toledano & Co. – also questioned why the court needed to intervene in contracts between private players registered outside of Israel, “thereby denying the museum the freedom to decide, given to it by the legislator.”

According to Sotheby’s, after a careful selection process, items worth 1.4 percent of the value of the museum’s entire collection were chosen. Sotheby’s said that based on the contract they have, they would seek compensation and expenses of over 2 million English pounds if the sale were called off.

Sotheby’s also claimed that discussions went on for weeks between the museum and the Antiquities Authority prior to the approval of the sale by archaeologist Ilan Hadad, who is acting head of the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit. He had wished the museum luck, Sotheby’s said.

“The foundation, the museum and Sotheby’s invested many resources in order to meet the demands of the Antiquities Authority, which carefully examined the items, consulting with archaeologists who specialize in the relevant periods,” the auction house stated.

One of the artifacts that the Museum for Islamic Art would like to sell off at Sotheby's.Credit: Sotheby's

The IAA argued that it operated within the law and that after realizing it could not prevent the auction based on the Antiquities Law, it informed the Culture Ministry of the intention to auction these items. The idea was to use additional means in order to prevent the sale, they said.

However, this contradicts the fact that the IAA only involved the Culture Ministry many weeks after people at the museum started talking to Hadad.

Another claim by Sotheby’s is that these artifacts are not actually that meaningful to Israel.

“They have no national, cultural or historical value for Israel or its public,” Sotheby’s wrote. “Thus, even if we assume that the auction is irreversible, there is no harm done.” They also noted that many auctions have taken place in recent years, in which they’ve helped the Israel Museum sell more than 100 works of art “whose cumulative value reaches tens of millions of dollars – much more than the items from the Islamic museum slated for auctioning.”

Lawyer Roy Shweika, who handles High Court cases for the State Prosecutor’s Office and is the respondent to the petition on behalf of the Culture Ministry and attorney general, wrote that the state supported a temporary injunction that would stop the auction for now.

The main issue is one of ownership, he wrote. “The museum claims that a private foundation is the owner, having loaned the items. This places in question the idea of whether the museum meets the conditions for being recognized as a museum, and could impact its eligibility for future support, with a possible repayment of finances it received in the past,” Shweika wrote.

The state claimed that the museum and foundation’s claim that ownership of these items is private contradicts reports filed by the museum over the years, in which it stated that, other than 24 items, all others were owned by the museum.

Shweika added that “the transfer of items from the museum to the foundation should be examined, to establish whether this meets conditions set by donors when they made their donations to be presented to the public in Jerusalem. There is an essential problem with the fact that all the museum’s assets, including displays and structures, belong to a private foundation located in Lichtenstein, which has purchased a recognized museum with all its displays. Another problem lies with the NGO the museum is associated with, which is serving only as an operating agent.”

Heller said the position of Culture Minister Tropper and the attorney general, who fully supports the petition, constituted significant assistance to an NGO trying to preserve cultural assets. (It is rare for the state to join a petition by an NGO.) He added that the IAA’s actions seriously affected cultural and spiritual treasures in Israel – treasures that were brought here, or will be brought here in the future, in order to enrich the public. He believed the museum and foundation acted in bad faith, exploiting the lack of understanding of a complex issue by officials at the Antiquities Authority.

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