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Israeli museum postpones plans to sell Islamic antiquities

JOSEPH KRAUSS
·4 min read

JERUSALEM (AP) — A museum in Israel on Monday postponed its planned auction of dozens of rare Islamic antiquities after word of the sale sparked a public uproar.

The L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art said it was putting the auction on hold after a positive dialogue with Israel's Culture Ministry and in response to a personal appeal from the country's figurehead president, Reuven Rivlin.

In a statement released by the museum, the Hermann de Stern Foundation, the institution's primary donor, noted that the collection was privately owned and the sale was permitted under the law.

“The foundation's management hopes that the postponement will make it possible to reach agreements that will also be acceptable to the Culture Ministry in the coming weeks,” it said.

The museum had planned to put 190 pieces on the block at Sotheby’s in London on Tuesday and to auction off more than 60 antique watches and timepieces later this week. The rare pieces are expected to fetch several million dollars.

The Culture Ministry had condemned the sale and vowed to do everything it can to prevent it. Rivlin said he was following the issue with “concern” and called on authorities to prevent the sale of such cultural assets.

The items up for bidding includes a 15th-century helmet designed to be worn over a turban and decorated with inlaid silver calligraphy, a 12th-century bowl depicting a Persian prince and intricate antique carpets from Egypt and what is now Turkey.

The watch auction is to include three watches designed by the famed Parisian horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet, whose timepieces adorned European royalty in the 17th and 18th centuries, including Marie Antoinette.

Sotheby's did not return a message seeking comment.

The museum was established in the 1960s by Vera Salomons, the scion of a British-Jewish aristocratic family, and named for Leo Arie Mayer, a prominent scholar of the Middle East. It houses thousands of Islamic artifacts dating from the 7th to the 19th centuries. It also has a collection of antique watches handed down by the Salomons family, including dozens designed by Breguet.

The Holy Land was part of various Islamic empires for more than 1,000 years, and the museum aims to promote understanding between Jews and mostly Muslim Arabs, who make up around 20% of Israel's population.

The museum has been closed for much of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the auction has reportedly been in the works for two years, and the popular museum is widely believed to be financially stable.

Antiquities officials and experts say the central purpose of museums is to bring valuable artifacts out of private collections to preserve them and display them to the public. With the Sotheby's auction, the Museum of Islamic Art is doing the exact opposite.

Nava Kessler, the chair of the Israeli Association of Museums, said it is unethical and unheard of for a museum to sell items to private collectors.

“It’s a very bad thing," said Kessler, whose organization is affiliated with the Paris-based International Council of Museums, which sets professional and ethical standards. "I was so ashamed that it happened in Israel.”

She said even if the museum were suffering financially, the ethical response would have been to find a buyer among other museums or cultural institutions, a process that takes time. Instead, antiquities authorities only learned of the planned sale in recent weeks.

The Israel Antiquities Authority was able to prevent two artifacts from going to auction because they had been discovered in Israel. But the museum was able to ship the remaining items to London.

Michael Sebbane, the authority's director of national treasures, said officials were “in shock” when they learned about the sale, which he said shows a “lack of professionalism.”

"This is a collection that is so important,” he said. “It is a museum that we would never dream would do something like this. This is not just any museum.”

He said that if the items are auctioned off, he expected private collectors to quickly snatch up all the pieces, both because they are rare and because their provenance is practically guaranteed since they come from a respected museum.

“They are selling items that are very important, very unique, and the moment they sell them the public will have lost them," he said. "If a private collector buys them, you won’t see them again.”

Before the postponement was announced, Israeli Culture Minister Hili Tropper said authorities were surprised to learn in recent weeks that such a “valuable and unprecedented” sale was in the works.

“We will use every legal and public means to prevent the sale of these inalienable assets of the Islamic Museum in Jerusalem,” he said in a statement, adding that the pieces have “great historical and artistic value.”

___

Associated Press writers Josef Federman and Isaac Scharf contributed.