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Rivlin: State must help stop sale of Jerusalem’s Islamic art museum collection

Citing financial pressures, the museum has turned to Sotheby’s to auction duplicates and storage items, as well as 60 timepieces from its storied watch collection

The facade of the L.A. Mayer Museum for the Islamic Arts in Jerusalem. (courtesy, Sotheby's)
The facade of the L.A. Mayer Museum for the Islamic Arts in Jerusalem. (courtesy, Sotheby's)

President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday called for Israel to help prevent the sale of part of Jerusalem’s Museum of Islamic Art’s storied collection, days before some 200 items are set to go under the hammer through Sotheby’s London.

The L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art says that facing financial pressures, including and especially from the coronavirus pandemic, it has been forced to sell off the items, in order to remain open at all.

Rivlin said he was “following with concern the issue of the sale of collections from the Museum of Islamic Art, including items of greater worth and significance than their monetary value.”

One-hundred-and-ninety objects of Islamic art from the museum’s storage and 60 clocks and watches from its permanent collection are currently scheduled to be sold on October 27 and 28, according to Sotheby’s.

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

Lamenting the move, Rivlin said in a statement, “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 museum’s decision to sell the items raised the ire of both Israeli and international archaeological and cultural authorities.

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.

The Prince Regent’s Resonance Watch bought by the future King George IV of England on October 2, 1818, will be sold by Jerusalem’s L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art at Sotheby’s London on October 28, 2020. (courtesy, Sotheby’s)

The museum benefactor, Salomons, was a student and devotee of Islamic art and architecture, and gathered a collection of Islamic calligraphy, filigree jewelry, features of Islamic architecture, adding the valuable watch collection that belonged to her father, David Salomons, an early 20th century British industrialist and world-renowned authority on the Swiss watchmaker Breguet.

Some 60 items from his collection will be sold on the second day of the sale. There will still be 160 objects from the watch collection at the museum, said Sheiban.

The top lots of the watch sale, three Breguet pocket watches, have a mythical provenance, according to Sotheby’s. The three timepieces present Breguet’s mechanical genius and revolutionary inventions, and represent his extensive clientele, including a watch made for the future King George IV of the UK, (estimated at about $514,000-$771,000) and a thermometer watch made for Princess Caroline Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, estimated at $381,831-$254,554.

Jessica Steinberg contributed to this report.

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