Israeli museum postpones sale of Islamic antiquities amid outrage

More than 250 rare ancient artefacts from across the Middle East were to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s London this week, sparking an outcry from Israel’s president and culture ministry.

The artefacts on auction are priced at an estimated $9m [File: Yonathan Weitzman/Reuters]

A museum in Israel has postponed its planned auction of dozens of rare Islamic antiquities, including centuries-old carpets, armaments and ceramics from across the Middle East after word of the sale sparked outrage.

The LA Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem had planned to put 190 pieces on the block at British auction house Sotheby’s on Tuesday and to auction off more than 60 antique watches and timepieces later this week. The rare items are expected to fetch millions of dollars.

In a statement released on Monday, the museum 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 Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

In the statement, the Hermann de Stern Foundation, the institution’s primary donor, noted 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.

Israel’s ministry had condemned the sale and vowed to do everything it can to prevent it.

On Monday, Rivlin said he was following the issue with “concern” and called on authorities to prevent the sale of such cultural assets.

In a statement, he said the items were “of greater worth and significance than their monetary value”.

The works on offer include early Quran leaves, Ottoman textiles, pottery from across the Islamic lands, a 15th-century helmet designed to be worn over a turban, a 12th-century bowl depicting a Persian prince, silver-inlaid metalwork, and Islamic arms and armour, according to Sotheby’s website.

Founded in 1965, the museum was established by Vera Salomons, the scion of a British-Jewish aristocratic family, and named after 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 museum has been closed for much of the year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the auction has reportedly been in the works for two years.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Monday that the museum has come under further financial stress.

The artefacts up for sale are expected to fetch up to $9m, according to Sotheby’s, which had yet to confirm the postponement of the auction.

The museum has a collection of antique watches handed down by the Salomons family [File: Bernat Armangue/AP Photo]

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,” Kessler told The Associated Press news agency. “I was so ashamed that it happened in Israel.”

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 the pieces have “great historical and artistic value”.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) was able to prevent two artefacts 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 IAA’s director of national treasures, said officials were “in shock” when they learned about the sale, which he said shows a “lack of professionalism”.

“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.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies