Making up for lost time

About 25 years after a rare collection was stolen from Jerusalem's Islamic Art museum, the 100 pieces are back, restored and on display.

July 19, 2009 12:46
Making up for lost time

musical snuff box 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

They say you can't recapture lost time, but don't try telling that to Rachel Hasson. The artistic director of the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem is still rubbing her eyes over the return and restoration of over 100 rare and priceless clocks that were stolen from the museum more than two decades ago. The opening on Tuesday of The Mystery of Lost Time marks the culmination of a 25-year saga that would be more befitting of a nail-biting Agatha Christie mystery than a staid Talbiyeh museum. "It's a miracle. I never thought I would see the missing pieces again," Hasson said last week, as she prepared for the opening of the exhibition which she curated. "It hardly ever happens that after 25 years, a stolen collection is found and is returned to its home." But thanks to a prolonged investigation that included the Israel Police, the Mossad, Interpol, private detectives and a good bit of old-fashioned luck, the clock collection is back where it belongs - in an ultra-theft proof walk-in safe. The more than 200 clocks were part of the one of the world's most impressive collections - owned by Sir David Lionel Salomons, who in 1855 became the first Jewish mayor of London. They were donated to the museum in 1974 by his daughter, Vera Bryce Salomons. She also provided an endowment the same year to found the museum, named after Leo Arie Mayer, a professor of Islamic art and architecture and rector at Hebrew University who had taught Bryce Salomons, and, by chance, also collected rare clocks. "When I started working here, more than 40 years ago, fresh out of college, they told me that a new collection had arrived and I should be in charge of opening and cataloguing it," recalled Hasson. "When I opened up the boxes and saw all those amazing clocks, I couldn't believe it - I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Every clock, every item was precious, I still remember the feeling." The collection's most significant and special timepieces were a ground-breaking group of 55 clocks by 18th-century French clockmaker Abraham Louis Breguet. The inventor of some of the greatest technological innovations in modern watch-making, Breguet was among the most influential individuals in modern horology. Among his creations was a timepiece known as the 'Marie Antoinette.' Commissioned, according to legend, for the French queen by a lover, the clock was considered the crown jewel of Breguet's career and the highlight of the Salamons exhibit. Other integral parts of the collection were a group of automaton clocks as well as gold musical snuff boxes adorned with enamel pictures, pearls and diamonds, the works of 19th-century craftsmen, particularly in Switzerland. The collection also features a selection of scientific instruments, such as barometric compasses, sundials and telescopes from the 17th to the 19th centuries, as well as a group of clocks manufactured in the 19th century in Europe for the Turkish market. According to Hasson, Bryce Salomons was adamant that the collection - which any museum in the world would have been ecstatic at displaying - be stationed permanently in Jerusalem. "She was a Zionist and wanted to expose Israelis to Islamic culture - and even though the clock collection had nothing to do with Islam, she knew it would bring people to the museum," she said. That, it did, as the clock exhibition became the beacon attracting people to the museum in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "It became such a staple of the museum that some people referred to us as the 'Clock Museum,'" recalled Hasson. "Despite us having seven other galleries of some quite amazing Islamic exhibits, the highlight was always the clocks. Diplomats, collectors and tourists would come to Israel especially to see it." THEN IT all fell apart on April 15, 1983. At that time, it was called the biggest robbery in Israel's history. Overnight, between the museum's closing on Friday night and Shabbat morning, thieves pried open the bars on a small window, climbed into the building and drove away with over 100 items from the clock collection, including the Marie Antoinette; another priceless Breguet table clock from 1819 known as the 'Sympathique,' which ran on a system in which a watch placed in a recess of the clock was automatically set and reset; and an 11 cm.-long, gold "pistol clock" created at the beginning of the 19th century in France. "I remember getting the phone call on Shabbat morning telling me that half of the clock collection had been stolen and I should come right away. As happy as I had been when the clocks arrived, I was in shock and mourning when they were stolen," recalled Hasson. "When I walked inside and saw the empty spaces - that Marie Antoinette was missing, the gun and so many others - all the wonderful things that were there had simply vanished between Friday night and Shabbat." Despite the prolonged multi-pronged investigation, for two decades authorities were unable to locate a trace of the missing clocks, and monetary rewards posted by the museum and its insurers went unclaimed - until August 2006. A Tel Aviv attorney contacted the museum saying that she represented a woman from the US claiming to possess 40 of the stolen items, including the Marie Antoinette. The woman said she discovered the existence of the clocks upon the 2004 death of her husband, who had concealed them from her. The husband in question was Na'aman Lidor, who in the 1960s had acquired the nickname in Israel of the "genius thief" for his successful burglaries both here and in Europe of various establishments, including banks, interior ministries and the gallery of artist Reuven Rubin. According to Hasson, Lidor was suffering from cancer and afraid to die alone, so he married the woman a short time before his death and left everything to her in his will. Through questioning Lidor's mother, who still lives in the country on a kibbutz, the police located a safe in his name in Holland, and with the cooperation of the Dutch police, discovered another seven clocks there, along with a box of jewelry and forged passports. Additional stolen clocks and items were discovered in the widow's home in Los Angeles and in bank safes in France. "They found some in the wife's shoe closet and there were even some in an orange warehouse," said Hasson. According to Hasson, Lidor managed to sell only eight or nine items in the collection because they were too well known in the art collection world. "He tried to change the appearance of some things so they wouldn't be identified, and he dismantled a lot of the clocks to try and sell them part by part, but it didn't work," she said. Refuting claims that the museum paid the widow a sum of money for returning the clocks, museum officials insisted no financial transaction was made and no criminal proceedings were initiated against the widow. Little by little, the collection returned to Jerusalem, where the painstaking task of restoring the clocks to their initial state was undertaken - and was only recently completed. The exhibition includes detailed information about the clocks, as well as a recorded tour guide in Hebrew and English. For Hasson, the opening of The Mystery of Lost Time represents the closing of a big circle that takes her back in time to those days over 40 years ago when she first laid eyes on the Salamons clock collection. "When I saw the restored Marie Antoinette clock, I burst into tears," said Hasson. "For me, it was a very exciting moment - to see almost the entire collection returned to its previous state. All the years we felt so bad and guilty that a rare collection like that disappeared from under our noses." "It may have been the perfect crime, but in the end, it wasn't perfect - he wasn't able to complete the final stage of selling the stolen property." The L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday-Thursday, and Friday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the The Mystery of Lost Time exhibition. Call (02) 566-1291 for details.

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