After Sotheby's Auction Nixed, Jerusalem's Islamic Art Museum Head Steps Down

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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Nadim Sheiban, the director of Jerusalem’s Museum of Islamic Art.
Nadim Sheiban, the director of Jerusalem’s Museum of Islamic Art. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

The director of Jerusalem’s Museum of Islamic Art, Nadim Sheiban, informed the museum’s board this week of his decision to step down at the end of the month, after seven years at his post.

His announcement comes about a week after the report of six months of talks that ended the planned auction at Sotheby’s in London of artifacts from the museum. The sale was canceled at the last minute in September after it aroused ire in Israel. It was recently reported that the 268 objects from the museum that were sent to Sotheby’s would be returned to Israel.

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As part of the agreement, whose signing was fostered by Culture Minister Chili Tropper, the museum will not incur financial damage and the fine for the cancellation of the sale will be paid by the Al-Thani Foundation of Qatar, which is expected to display an item from the collection in Paris. This week, Tropper said: “We will fight for our artistic treasures. Artistic objects are not currency. This is a statement of an important value. We will not give up on such significant ethical and public issues.”

The affair over the intention to sell the items to finance the continued operation of the museum cast a pall over Sheiban’s tenure as museum director. As was detailed in Haaretz over the last six months in a series of articles by Naama Riba, the auction, which was to have taken place in September, raised difficult questions regarding ownership of the items on display at the museum, their importance as state treasures, the museum’s freedom of action and the activities of the Lichtenstein-based Hermann de Stern Foundation, the museum’s principal donor.

On October 28, a few weeks after the affair broke, Sheiban said in a radio interview with Goel Pinto on a Kan Broadcasting culture show: “I discovered how hypocritical our society is and how hypocritical the media is. How a lie can become truth so quickly. Even a minister doesn’t tell the truth. It’s easy to attack, humiliate, take people who have succeeded and done admirable things and turn them into a rag. That’s the easiest thing. I felt humiliated.” Sheiban’s remarks were directed at Tropper, who criticized the museum’s leadership.

Sheiban, 69, was born in the town of Rama in the Galilee to a Palestinian Christian family. He taught for three years at a Christian school in Rama, the rest of whose teachers were nuns, and later studied sociology, political science, social work and international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After his studies he worked at the welfare office in East Jerusalem. After 25 years of working for the municipality and a series of senior positions, he went to work for the Jerusalem Foundation and became a board member of a number of museums, including the Museum of Islamic Art. In 2014, he was appointed director of the museum. He is a well-known and admired figure in Jerusalem and was regarded by many as having broken every possible glass ceiling in the various positions he held.

This week, with the announcement he would be stepping down, Sheiban emphasized his achievements at the museum. In a letter to the board he wrote: “During the seven years of my work I am proud that I was able to move the museum to the forefront of the artistic and cultural stage in Israel, exposing the museum to hundreds of thousands of visitors and to new audiences. The museum updated its permanent exhibit, hundreds of artists from Israel and abroad showed their works at dozens of changing exhibits, hundreds of musical and cultural events were held, collaborations took place with leading museums abroad, and an education department was established that exposed tens of thousands of schoolchildren to the cutting-edge and multicultural programs.”

Sheiban also wrote: “Following the conclusion of negotiations with Sotheby’s and the Culture Ministry and the return to Israel in recent weeks of the museum’s objects, I am pleased to announce my departure with a sense of satisfaction and my embarkation on a new path.” Sheiban also thanked the members of the board for their support and the museum’s employees for their work.

The museum board thanked Sheiban for his contribution to the advancement of the museum, and announced that the museum’s deputy director, Gilad Levian, would become acting director. Levian, 46, who lives in Jerusalem, is a graduate of the archaeology and geography department of the Hebrew University, with a specialty in Islam. He is a former director of Hora, the Municipal Association for Dance and Song, and the U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art.

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