Facing Outcry, Jerusalem's Islamic Art Museum Postpones Sotheby's Auction of Rare Artifacts

British auction house delays sale, initially set for Tuesday, at museum collection's owner request after intervention from Israel's president and culture minister

Naama Riba
Naama Riba
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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

British auction house Sotheby's said on Monday that it would postpone an auction of 268 items, scheduled for Tuesday at the request of Hermann de Stern Foundation, which owns the Israeli Museum for Islamic Art's collection, as the Jerusalem museum faces fierce criticism over its decision to sell the artifacts.

The L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art planned to auction nearly five percent of its lot of 5,525 items, including the rare and unique jewels of its collection, in order to assuage its financial difficulties.

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The proposed sale provoked strong reactions; experts, senior figures in the art world and even Israel's President Reuven Rivlin called for the museum to pull back from the sale.

In recent days, the Culture Ministry has demanded the museum hand over all documents concerning the ownership of the items in a bid to prevent the sale, but the documents have not yet been forwarded to the office. A spokeswoman for the museum, Galit Gottfried, told Haaretz that "the foundation is the one that decided on the sale and it is the one that signed the contract with Sotheby's."

According to her, the postponement request is intended to enable the completion of contacts between the fund's management and the government, and to reach agreements regarding the sale. The museum also highlighted that the sale of the items was done in accordance with the law.

Ceramic artifacts with blue and white decoration from Iznik, Turkey, from about 1480. Value is estimated at £200,000-300,000 ($260,000-39,000)Credit: Sotheby's
Breguet gold precision watch constructed on the principle of resonance with two dials, estimated at £400,000 - 600,000 ($521,000 - $780,000).Credit: Sotheby's

Sotheby's confirmed that “further to discussions between the L.A Mayer museum and the Israeli Government, the scheduled sales of a selection of works from the museum have been temporarily postponed to November.

"The aim of these sales remains to safeguard and further the founding vision of the museum and to advance its work in fostering cross-cultural dialogue and understanding," the spokesperson added.

President Rivlin – who lives near the museum and whose father was an Orientalist and translated Islamic literature into Hebrew – also expressed "concern" and called for a halt to the sale on Sunday. "The assets have a deeper and more significant value than money," the president said, before calling on the state to intervene.

On Sunday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelbit held a legal hearing on the issue with the participation of his deputy, Dina Zilber, Culture Minister Chili Tropper and the Jerusalem district attorney.

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

The museum, which was established in 1974 by philanthropist Vera Bryce Salomons, had begun planning the sale more than two years ago, much before the coronavirus pandemic broke out, threatening the financial state of museums in Israel and around the world. According to the museum, the items to be auctioned off are owned by the private Hermann de Stern Foundation, which is the major entity funding the museum's operations.

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