Jerusalem Islamic museum scraps Sotheby’s sale of its exhibits following outrage

Foundation intervenes on eve of multi-million-dollar London auction, citing ‘respect for the president,’ who had panned the move as a loss to Israel and the region

Some 190 objects from the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art planned to be sold at Sotheby's London on October 27, 2020 (Courtesy Sotheby's)
Some 190 objects from the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art planned to be sold at Sotheby's London on October 27, 2020 (Courtesy Sotheby's)

Following outrage from both Israeli and international archaeological and cultural authorities, Jerusalem’s Museum of Islamic Art asked on Monday to delay the sale of part of its storied collection, days before some 200 items were set to go under the hammer through Sotheby’s London.

One hundred and ninety objects of Islamic art from The L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art’s storage and 60 clocks and watches from its permanent collection had been scheduled to be sold on October 27 and 28. The museum had said that facing financial pressures, including and especially from the coronavirus pandemic, it was been forced to sell off the items, in order to remain open at all.

The Hermann de Stern Foundation, a private foundation that owns the items, said Monday that the decision to pull the lots was made due to criticism of the planned sale voiced by many, including President Reuven Rivlin.

Lamenting the planned move, Rivlin said on Sunday, “We must find the means available to the State of Israel in the legal and international spheres to prevent the sale of these cultural assets from the region as a whole.”

President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem during the Knesset elections on March 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Rivlin said that the Museum of Islamic Art, which is down the street from his official residence, as well as the other museums across Israel “are the repositories of enormous spiritual and material assets for the State of Israel and the Middle East, and we must do all we can to keep them in Israel.”

The Hermann de Stern Foundation foundation said it had suspended the auction “due to our great respect for the president of Israel, and even though the foundation always acted in accordance with all applicable laws. The museum and the foundation hope to reach a mutually acceptable solution with the Ministry of Culture over the next few weeks.”

The sale of Islamic works, including objects, manuscripts and rugs and carpets, was estimated to bring a total of between $4.13 million and $6.1 million to the museum. The watches, which were to be offered on the auction’s second day, have a combined estimated worth of $2.2 million-$3.4 million.

Museum director Nadim Sheiban told The Times of Israel last month, “We looked at piece after piece and made some very hard decisions… We didn’t want to harm the core and prestige of the collection.”

A silver-inlaid Aqqoyunlu turban helmet, Turkey or Persia, second half 15th century will be sold by the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art by Sotheby’s on October 27, 2020. (courtesy, Sotheby’s)

Sheiban, who helms the museum founded by British philanthropist Vera Salomons 40 years ago in order to bridge gaps between Jews and Muslims, said he was first moved to sell off parts of the museum’s collection during the 2017 financial crisis that reduced the holdings of the foundation created to support the museum. He said the coronavirus sealed his decision.

“We were afraid we could lose the museum and be forced to close the doors,” he said. “If we didn’t act now, we would have to shut down in five to seven years. We decided to act and not wait for the collapse of the museum.”

The art, stressed Sheiban, is not considered a national treasure, since most of its objects were brought from all over the world and not found in Israel or Palestine. That distinction is what allowed the museum to legally sell some of its holdings, as the Israel Antiquities Authority must grant permission for any ancient object that leaves the country.

Jessica Steinberg contributed to this report.

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