Auction for Jerusalem museum’s treasures postponed at last minute

By Oliver Holmes in Jerusalem

Among the hundreds of precious items at Jerusalem’s Museum for Islamic Art is an ostentatious helmet that may have belonged to an Ottoman sultan, a page from a nearly millennium-old Qur’an, and a 13th-century Mamluk glass bowl.

While no doubt treasured, these artefacts can no longer be considered priceless. In a controversial Sotheby’s auction previously set to take place in London on Tuesday, the bowl was estimated at £60,000-£80,000 and the helmet and Qur’an leaf at £200,000-£300,000 each.

Facing financial hardship, the museum had planned the sale of more than 200 items – worth possibly about £7.5m – well before the pandemic closed its doors. Now it says the auction is essential to avoid potential ruin.

Yet, fearing an arts drain, Israeli officials and government agencies had attempted to block the sale. The president, Reuven Rivlin, who lives around the corner from the museum, said the collection had a “greater worth and significance than their monetary value” and issued a rallying cry to prevent “the sale of these cultural assets from the region as a whole”.

The Ottoman helmet
The Ottoman helmet. Photograph: Jerusalem’s Museum for Islamic Art

Israel’s culture ministry, the state prosecutor’s office and the antiquities authority have all looked into the case but hit snags, as rules prohibiting the export of national treasures have caveats, including if the items originate from outside Israel and Palestine.

On Monday night, less than a day before the auction was to start, the museum announced in a statement from its primary donor that the sale would be postponed.

“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,” the Hermann de Stern Foundation said.

The museum had earlier declined a request for an interview. Its director, Nadim Sheiban, cited the “sensitive situation in Israel regarding the sale”.

Sheiban has previously said the collection consists of items long kept in storerooms or are similar to others retained by the museum, and that he fears the museum could be shut within five to seven years if it does not act. The museum said the funds raised would secure its long-term future and educational programming.

Some of the most prized of the museum’s items were not given up for sale, including a self-winding Breguet watch thought to have been intended as a gift for Marie Antoinette but which took four decades to make. Stolen in 1983 and recovered in 2007, it is believed to be worth upwards of £20m.

In comments that have baffled some art historians, Sheiban defended the decision to sell armour and helmets on the grounds that warfare has no place in the museum.

Founded by the British-Jewish philanthropist Vera Bryce Salomons in the 1960s, the museum’s aim is to showcase Islamic and Arab culture and to connect Palestinians and Jews in the holy city. Salomons’ father, David Lionel Salomons, was a watch collector, and Sotheby’s had planned on Wednesday to sell more than 60 timepieces kept by the museum.

Sefy Hendler, an art historian and gallery director at Tel Aviv University, questioned whether the museum was truly in need of financial rescue and called the auction “an artistic and public disgrace” that “shames any lover of culture in Israel”.

“The clever explanations of all those who joined forces in order to transfer these treasures to the London auction house can be summed up in one bottom line: money,” he wrote in the Haaretz newspaper.

A Sotheby’s spokesperson said it had for decades conducted deaccessions, whereby museums or art galleries sell items to raise funds, including an auction this week that includes art from the Baltimore Museum and the Brooklyn Museum, and also from Israeli museums in the past.

The spokesperson said the guiding principle behind the selection from the Museum for Islamic Art was to ensure the integrity of its collection, which holds items numbering in the thousands.

“The displays in the galleries will remain almost entirely undisturbed, remaining intact both from a spectator point of view and also from an academic and curatorial perspective,” they said.