Opinion |

Its Gatekeepers Failed, and the Israeli Art World May Be Left to the Mercy of Qatari Cash

New pic Hendler
Sefy Hendler
Artifacts at the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem.
Artifacts at the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
New pic Hendler
Sefy Hendler

One of the biggest scandals in the history of Israeli museums has reached an unexpected happy ending. The attempt to sell some of the best artifacts of the L. A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem ended with an international compromise supervised by the High Court of Justice.

The splendid collection was made possible by a donation from the late Vera Salomons, who dreamed back in the ‘60s of bringing Jews and Muslims closer through art. Hundreds of incredibly beautiful and important pieces from the collection were at stake. Salomons established the museum and left specific instructions on how to run it, but those who pretended to speak in her name – an unknown foundation from Lichtenstein, with Israeli and Swiss trustees running it – tried to sell a hefty chunk of the collection to the highest bidder.

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Their excuse was alleged financial woes and other peculiar arguments; for example, the museum director’s revulsion at exhibiting ancient weapons. The result was an immediate threat to the integrity of one of the most important Islamic art collections in the world.

But then two things happened, extraordinary for the days when we’re only focusing on the pandemic. The first was the outcry by the Israeli Association of Museums and ICOM Israel, researchers, journalists like Goel Pinto and Haaretz’s Naama Riba, the Hashava foundation, Culture Minister Chili Tropper, the state prosecutor and President Reuven Rivlin, who prevented the sale.

The second was a last-minute, deus-ex-machina-style intervention by Qatar. Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani, first cousin to the emir ruling the Gulf state known for delivering cash-stuffed suitcases to Gaza, agreed to help the Jerusalem museum via the Al Thani Collection foundation. The agreement will also ensure compensation for Sotheby’s auction house for calling off the sale, thus enabling the collection’s return to Jerusalem.

In return, the museum agreed to lend an extraordinarily beautiful artifact to the Al Thani museum collection that is due to open later this year in Paris. The agreement is a surprising but encouraging compromise that lets us draw conclusions from the affair.

It’s clear that the story the museum’s directors concocted about a terrible financial crisis that could only be overcome by the “emergency sale” was nonsense. Apparently the entire collection can be returned to Jerusalem, and it’s even possible to obtain funding thanks to the creative cooperation with a prestigious international collection. The Al Thani Collection museum to open at Paris’ Hôtel de la Marine on the Place de la Concorde under French-government auspices will consist of artifacts from the foundation’s collection as well as loans from world-class institutions such as the British Museum, Russia’s Hermitage and now the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem.

A spectacular silver vessel around 1,000 years old, originating in northern Iran (part of the so-called Harari Hoard in Jerusalem), will travel as a loan to the new Paris museum as part of the agreement, thus allowing wider crowds to enjoy it. All it took was creative thinking by the culture minister’s team and Sotheby’s, in contrast to the museum directors’ negligence.

The Islamic Museum is of tremendous value and can be upgraded by lending one of its key artifacts rather than by a reckless sale. Art is being used in this story to build international bridges, not to make a profit.

Two other conclusions can be drawn about the role of the gatekeepers and the public. Clearly in the current atmosphere in Israel the civil servants, most of them faithful public servants, mustn’t get in the hierarchy’s way. In the case of the Islamic Museum, all the mechanisms that were supposed to stop the treasure from leaving the country failed and the battle was carried out against all odds.

Now Israel's museum and antiquity laws and the accompanying regulations should be amended to prevent sales of cultural treasures kept in Israel. And the public? It must continue to closely watch the treasure troves that ultimately belong to it alone. After all, we won’t always have Paris – or a rich uncle from Qatar.

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