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Spared the auction block for now, Islamic museum’s artifacts face unclear future

Though Rivlin declared the cultural assets should stay in Israel, a lawyer for the foundation that supports the museum still insists Sotheby’s sale would be best outcome

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The Prince Regent's No. 2788 Breguet watch, from the David Salomons collection at the L.A. Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem, to be sold at Sotheby's London (Courtesy Sotheby's London)
The Prince Regent's No. 2788 Breguet watch, from the David Salomons collection at the L.A. Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem, to be sold at Sotheby's London (Courtesy Sotheby's London)

The kerfuffle over a planned sale at Sotheby’s of part of the collection from Jerusalem’s Museum of Islamic Art has resulted in the sale being postponed until November. But as some push for the auction to be scrapped altogether, others are demanding that it go ahead as planned.

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 were scheduled to be sold on October 27 and 28. The museum had said that facing financial pressures, especially from the coronavirus pandemic, it was forced to sell off the items, in order to remain open at all.

Two days before the planned sale, President Reuven Rivlin said the State of Israel must find the means to prevent the sale of the cultural assets.

“We must do all we can to keep them in Israel,” said Rivlin, whose official residence is up the block from the museum.

A rare Ottoman tombak chamfron will be up for sale at Sotheby’s London from the LA Islamic Museum of Art in Jerusalem sale in November 2020 (Courtesy Sotheby’s)

The private Hermann de Stern Foundation based in Liechtenstein, which provides most of the financial support for the museum, asked Sotheby’s to postpone the sale, due to its great respect for Rivlin.

But the Israeli attorney for the Hermann de Stern Foundation, Zvi Agmon, vehemently refuted the need to postpone the sale.

“I respect the president and I told my client we have to respect what he’s saying, so we decided to postpone,” he said. “But the museum can do this [sale]. The director isn’t going to spend it in Las Vegas, he’s trying to make plans for the museum.”

The museum notified the government of the sale in August, “but they only woke up in October,” said Agmon, noting that the museum’s planned sale at Sotheby’s was in full compliance with Israeli law.

“Museums sell items, sometimes in order to buy something new or to do something for the museum. It’s part of the balancing act of museums throughout the world,” said Agmon. “No one is letting anything escape.”

The question remains as to why the foundation — set up with monies from the Stern family, known as one of the richest Jewish families in Victorian England, can’t help the museum — said one UK watch collector who preferred to remain anonymous.

“They were so rich, they lent money to governments,” said the collector. “Maybe the foundation is really short of money. It seems unlikely.”

According to the museum’s financial holdings, available on the Justice Ministry website for nonprofit organizations, its annual turnover in 2018 was NIS 8,964,716, with government support and admission sales accounting for one-fifth of its annual income.

The sale of Islamic works, including objects, manuscripts and rugs and carpets, is estimated to bring in between $4.13 million and $6.1 million. 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.

A small mold blown blue glass bottle from 12th century Persia, from the LA Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem collection, to be sold at Sotheby’s London (Sotheby’s)

The museum put extreme care into the selection process, with the guiding principle to ensure that the integrity of museum’s collection remain intact, said a Sotheby’s spokesperson.

The vast majority of works selected for sale came from storage, representing a small percentage of total holdings, which number 5,000.

“Our mutual goal was to secure the future of the museum and enable them to achieve the extremely worthwhile projects that they have planned,” said the Sotheby’s spokesperson.

The sale proceeds will be used to expand the museum’s intercultural programs, including tours for schools, Arabic lessons for Hebrew speakers and exhibitions of Arab Israeli art, which were all part of the founding vision of Vera Salomons, whose mother was Laura Stern, a descendent of the Stern banking family, and whose father, David Salomons, was a scientific author and horologist who amassed the world’s largest Breguet watch collection.

His collection has been on display at the museum since its establishment.

“To carry a fine Breguet watch is to feel that you have the brains of a genius in your pocket,” is an oft-mentioned quote of Salomons.

Several UK watch collectors and experts expressed dismay that three of the museum’s Breguet watches, considered to be among the finest examples of precision micro mechanical engineering technology of the 19th century, were being put up for sale.

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)

The top lots of the watch sale, three Breguet pocket watches, have a mythical provenance, according to Sotheby’s. The three timepieces present the French watchmaker’s mechanical genius and revolutionary inventions, and include a watch made for the future King George IV of the United Kingdom, estimated at $514,000-$771,000, and a thermometer watch made for Princess Caroline Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, estimated at $381,831-$254,554.

For horologists, it’s extremely rare to have three complicated Breguet watches coming under the hammer at the same time.

“I was a bit shocked that a watch of this caliber was up for grabs,” said Dr. Andrew Hildreth, Watch Editor at I-M Intelligent Magazine and Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. “To me, it predates and prefixes a number of developments in the modern watch world.”

If the museum goes ahead with the sale, Hildreth hopes it would go to a collector who would put it on public display.

He was also surprised at the “ridiculously low price,” comparing it with similar watches that have been sold for mid-seven figures.

“There’s sufficient money in the world and I have to think that it would go for five or ten times this,” he said. “These kinds of watches should not be in private hands.”

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