The Antiquities Thief Who Became One of Britain's Richest Men

Shlomo Moussaieff, who died in July at 92, lived a life that could have been lifted straight from the pages of 'One Thousand and One Nights.'

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Shlomo MoussaieffCredit: Matthew Morgenstern
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Many large numbers were associated with the life of billionaire jewel dealer and antiquities collector Shlomo Moussaieff, who died on July 1 at 92. He owned the most expensive red diamond in the world, worth $20 million, as well as the largest Judaica collection, which contained more than 60,000 artifacts. His capital was valued at $350 million, making him one of the richest people in Great Britain. When asked once what he was worth, he refused to answer, saying that according to the kabbala, anyone who counts his money invites bad luck.

Moussaieff’s life story was so amazing and dramatic, it’s sometimes hard to discern whether this was the life of a mortal or a story taken from the fables of “1001 Nights.”

According to family legend, its roots go all the way back to David Maimon, the brother of Maimonides. The family made its way to Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan), where it dealt in commerce, including silk and gems. Family lore has it that his forefathers wove the silk cloak worn by Genghis Khan.

At the end of the 19th century, Shlomo Moussaieff, the elder, immigrated to Palestine from Bukhara, carrying 40 boxes of gold. He then built the Bukharan Quarter in Jerusalem, also fathering five children. One of them, Rehavia, inherited most of his wealth, fathering 12 children of his own. Shlomo Moussaieff, named after his grandfather, was one of these. Another son was killed in the War of Independence in 1948. Another daughter died in a terror attack in the 1950s.

Moussaieff was dyslexic and didn’t attend school. At the age of 12, he left home after being abused by his father, who had threatened to kick him out at the age of 13. He slept on the street and supported himself with different jobs. “Ultimately, that’s what fortified me – I looked for challenges on the street,” he said in later years.

He acquired his fondness for antiquities and commerce as a boy, while stealing coins from the Sanhedrin Caves in Jerusalem. He sold them, he said, to famous archaeologists, professionals and amateurs, including Eleazar Sukenik (Yigael Yadin’s father) and Moshe Dayan. On one occasion, he was caught and sent to an institution for young offenders. It wasn’t his only tangle with the law. In the 1950s, he was arrested on suspicion of stealing coins and seals from the Hebrew University. In the 1990s, he was prosecuted by the Iraqi government for holding an engraving that was stolen from the ruins of Nineveh.

“They hated me, calling me an antiquities thief. But what do all the museums in the world contain? Artifacts they find themselves?” he told Channel 2 in an interview. “I told them, ‘Blessed is the Arab farmer who brings our history out of the ground.’ So they’re angry at me? Let them be angry.”

At 18 he joined the underground Irgun (Etzel) movement, and later enlisted in the British army. During World War II, he was in Egypt, Libya and Italy. He searched for antiquities there as well, including in synagogue attics, where ancient documents were often stored. In 1948, he fought in Jerusalem and was captured by the Jordanians. Following his release, he worked at the family jewelry store, also smuggling gold and antiquities from Jordan to Israel. In 1963, he left Israel with his wife and moved to London. “The earth started burning under my feet,” he later recalled. “I was constantly worried about being caught.”

He opened his first jewelry store at the Park Lane Hilton. At the end of the 1960s, London was flooded with wealthy Arabs who became his clients, making him very rich. Arab rulers, shipping magnates, actors, singers, gamblers and celebrities came to his store. “Anyone wishing to buy for less than one million pounds need not enter I help people get rid of their money,” he told Haaretz in 2001.

There were also those who helped him get rid of his own money. In the circles of antiquity dealers, he made a name for himself as someone who purchased forgeries. “Despite all his money he didn’t have any joy,” says someone who knew him well. His life was documented in a 2003 Channel 1 movie called “The Wisdom of Diamonds.”

He leaves behind his wife, Aliza, and three daughters. One of them, Dorrit, is married to the president of Iceland.

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