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Stop the Jerusalem Islamic Art Museum From Selling Off Its Treasures

Sefy Hendler
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An exhibit at the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem, in 2016.
An exhibit at the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem, in 2016. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Sefy Hendler

The Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem is a rare wonder: an art institution that for almost 50 years has been displaying the incredible richness of Islamic art to an Israeli audience. Vera Salomons, the donor who placed the collection and the building at the disposal of the general public, added to her donation the rare watch collection of Lord David Salomons, one of the world’s most import watch collections. The combination of Islamic objets d’art that the donor wanted exposed to the Israeli public, and the breathtaking watches, creates one of the rarest collections in Israel, God’s little acre in a city that desperately needs such places.

The past years have been good years for the museum: Its exhibition was updated, the research activity benefited from an increase in cooperative projects with universities, and the exhibitions were highly praised. The group responsible for all these successes is the museum staff, headed by director Nadim Sheiban.

That’s why all those who love the museum were shocked to learn about its administrators’ decision to sell 268 items from its collections at a public auction, which is being presented as designed to rescue the museum, when it’s not at all clear that the museum is in need of such a “rescue.”

A perusal of the catalogue produced by Sotheby’s public auction house for sales planned for this week (one for the watches, a second for the Islamic art) is a particularly traumatic experience. It is evident that the objects were chosen by a master and by the world’s greatest experts. These are not negligible works that were gathering dust in the storeroom, they are the finest items in the collection: a 1,000-year-old illustrated page from the Koran, three watches by Abraham-Louis Breguet, perhaps the greatest watchmaker of the early 19th century in Paris, and much more.

The prices of the items are of course assessed accordingly – huge sums that could reach tens of millions of shekels. The cynics will say: enough money to build a new museum. The clever explanations of all those who joined forces in order to transfer these treasures to the London auction house can be summed up in one bottom line: money. And of course, as always we have to follow the money. The sellers’ coffers will swell, the auction house will profit, of course, and at the end of the day the buyers will be getting a good deal.

The history of the modern art trade teaches us that rare items of such exceptional quality are rare finds, and a very good deal for the buyers. The losers of course are the art lovers. Who will want to contribute again to the establishment of a museum in Israel, when it turns out that the donation is conditional in the final analysis, and treasures from the collection can be sold to the highest bidder, at the whim of one administration or another?

I still recall the dismay I felt when I heard about the “Great Watch Robbery” in 1983, when about 100 watches, some of the rarest in the world, were stolen from the museum. With the naivete of a child I couldn’t understand how the breathtaking objects I had viewed in amazement only a few months earlier had disappeared overnight. It was a feeling of searing insult, because after all, an item in a museum belongs, if only in theory, to the entire public.

But during that legendary break-in, sophisticated criminals desired the collection for themselves. After 25 years and a worldwide investigation the crime was solved and most of the watches were returned to the museum, repaired and renovated. And now once again, this time under the auspices of the law, several of the most beautiful objects displayed in an Israeli museum will be taken permanently.

The planned auctions are an artistic and public disgrace, which even if accompanied by legal expertise, shames any lover of culture in Israel. After the vigorous protest of the Association of Museums in Israel, it’s time for Israel’s president, attorney general and culture minister to stop this scandalous sale with all the legal means at their disposal.

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