Like his Bukharan ancestors who wandered the ancient Silk Road on camels and horses to make their living in trade, Shlomo Moussaieff, 86, is a master storyteller, collector and trader. Fiddling mindlessly with a 2,000-year-old blue Roman glass vase he recently found and swears he wouldn't sell for a million dollars, just because he likes it so much, the legendary antiquities collector and multimillionaire jeweler to stars and sheikhs is holding his daily court on a recent, sunny morning. The phone rings and people come and go, occasionally exchanging money, showing an intriguing object or talking about anything from gemstones, antiquities, Kabbala and ancient history to money deals and the good old days.
In his seaside penthouse in Herzliya Pituah, his collections of everyday objects from Jewish history rival the Judaica collections of many local museums. Across his living room, beyond a scattering of antique silver, ceremonial objects, cuneiform inscriptions, mosaics, Torah scrolls, maps and manuscripts and other treasures of Judaica and Near Eastern archeology, a vignette of more colorful objects recalls the story of his own family. At the bottom of spiral staircase lined with toy camels heading up, a richly-colored silk Bukharan robe on a hanger sways slightly in a hot breeze.
"I am dyslexic," Moussaieff announces. "But I remember details, feelings. What especially inspired me from my childhood were the colorful dresses. I am fascinated by color. Do you want to see my collection of Bukharan robes?"
Moussaieff, who grew up in the Bukharan Quarter of Jerusalem, founded by his namesake grandfather, continuously pauses in the middle of his stories to recall one collection or another, to show related letters, documents or photos, to laugh, curse or flirt, or to burst into song in Hebrew or Arabic verse.
In three and a half hours of conversation, he also mentions a colorful cast of characters who he says has personally touched the lives of the Moussaieff clan, including the likes of Genghis Khan, Maimonides, Elizabeth Taylor, Moshe Dayan and Saddam Hussein's son. The family itself also creates its own infamy. His daughter, Dorit, is married to the embattled president of Iceland, and Moussaieff most recently is a star witness in the Israel Antiquities Authority's lawsuit against a team of antiquities experts it says have faked a series of important artifacts, including the contentious "James, brother of Jesus" ossuary.
His stories, like his collections, are often considered controversial. In the antiquities world, he is especially renowned for often turning his nose up at the accepted logic that artifacts should be documented in situ by archeologists to make the most of their historical meaning. Moussaieff bah-humbugs traditional thinking, arguing, like his old friend Moshe Dayan, that so-called looters are also salvaging history by bringing it into the light and keeping it out of the dusty cellars of antiquities authorities.
You are testifying in a law suit that is accusing other antiquities experts of forgery. Have you bought antiquities from them or others that have turned out to be fakes?
In court I showed them how to know if the clay is genuine - I lick it. I know the taste. After so many years in the business, just looking, you also know. Everyone who is jealous says that I have some fakes. I spend a lot of money to double-check, and so far in four years of court cases they haven't been able to prove any one of them is a fake. I have been collecting for 65 years and have 60,000 items in my collection. It is possible I have made a mistake, but if I have made a mistake, nobody can prove it. (Laughs.)
You have been collecting ancient Jewish artifacts since you were very young. Is there any truth to these legends that you got started because you were living in caves?
My grandfather had an antiquities collection. My heart was broken when, after he passed away, all the children divided the objects among themselves and sold them for pennies. But I saved mine until now.
When I was 12 my father said, "I want you to be a rabbi, but [because of the dyslexia] you can't read and write, what can I do with you?" and kicked me out of his house. So naturally I went to sleep in the synagogue. The shamash, the keeper, took good care of me. I slept on old mattresses on the floor full of flies. The Yemenites started to pray at 4:30 a.m. They were very poor and prayed around one book. Today they know how to read from every direction. I heard this for three years every day. (Moussaieff breaks into Hebrew prayers with a Yemenite accent.)
During the day I worked in a carpentry factory in Sanhedria cleaning floors. Sometimes I also slept there on straw at night. After the factory closed at 4 or 5 p.m., I wandered the caves alone. There were about 50 of them in Sanhedria, and I found little coins on the surface. In one cave I saw a door, so I went to a senior carpenter to ask him to show me how to open it. He brought an ax and we found a coffin made of lead and designed with grapes. At the time [late 1930s] lead was very expensive, he had told me.
So he cut the coffin into pieces and told me to go to the Armenian Quarter [of the Old City], where they can use lead. I got two piasters and had a party with the money with the many mad people who hung out in the caves and declared themselves the messiah. I came again, I took more, I sold more. Until one day an Arab policeman caught me, beat me and took me to a judge. They said I had destroyed ancient property and sentenced me to nine months in a reform school for children in Tulkarm called Maslahia.
You spent much of your youth in Arab institutions and with Arab children. How did that influence you?
Ninety percent [of the other youths in the reform school] were Arab. They asked my religion and when I said Jewish, they took me to study with one teacher who was a rabbi with a stick. (Breaks out in Hebrew prayer, showing me the verse he was learning at the time.) He hit me on my fingers with that stick because I couldn't remember what the verse was from. I ran away. I was afraid they were going to send me back to this rabbi, so when someone caught me and asked who I was, I said, "I am an Arab" and they put me in a madrassa. It was paradise for me [because of the dyslexia]. They put the Koran in front of the students but they didn't read, they just sang out loud. (Moussaieff breaks out singing verses in Arabic.)
I learned it by heart. Stayed for nearly one year. Of course I learned Arabic from a very early age. Jerusalem was mixed. We used it all the time. And all my friends in the street were Arab. And my mother didn't have milk, so I was nursed by an Arab neighbor and we were friends with her family. We were friendly until today, though the situation is different today. Today it's difficult because in the name of God people decide whom to love and whom to hate; and in those days nobody talked about God. Life was only about relationships.
World War II had broken out around this time and in Jerusalem, your Jewish neighbors were forming an underground to resist the British. What did you do?
My sister and wife [to be] joined the Jewish underground to fight against the British. After the madrassa, I also joined the Jewish underground in 1940. And when David Raziel [the underground leader] encouraged everyone to join the British army to fight Hitler, I listened to him.
(Moussaieff gets up to dig through a pile of photos, until he finds one of himself in uniform. Photos of his family fall out of the pile, including one of his daughter Dorit with Mahmoud Abbas.)
In the British army I served in the Egyptian desert and, toward the end of the war, also in Italy. Every week we had time off. So I went around to old synagogues all over Italy, asked the shamash to see the geniza. I collected Kabbala and ketubot of famous rabbis and all genizot. I did not take them from abandoned synagogues - I bought them, until I was released from the British army in 1945.
[In 1947] I joined my sister to fight in the Old City of Jerusalem and became a prisoner of war [in 1948] two weeks after I was married. I was a POW in Transjordan for one year. We were 10 people to a tent in the desert. When there was shooting, we would dig trenches in the sand to sit in so the bullet could not reach us. I made good connections with the Arabs. Not everyone did; it depended on your personal behavior. If you knew your way with them, they would take care of you.
(Moussaieff digs up a plastic bag of yellowed postcards and letters stamped by the Red Cross, dated, and addressed to him in Transjordan by his wife, Aliza: "To: Shlomo Moussaieff POW c/o Arab Legion Trans-Jordan. 26/049/48. Darling, I wish you once more happy holidays and happy new year. I want you to take off your beard. Please try not to be too sad. Cheer up, I am sure it won't last for long now. I am always thinking of you and try to do everything as if you were with me." A call to a former POW in Jordan once interviewed by this journalist confirms that Moussaieff was there.)
After the war you opened an antique jewelry shop next to the Generali building in Jerusalem and later you also opened a jewelry empire in the London Hilton. Your gems are known around the world and some are known in your name because the stones are so important. What is your favorite?
You wouldn't know it; it's not in the record. It is a demantoid garnet and has the type of green that even an emerald doesn't have. No other stone has this color. I have the biggest one in the world - six carats. I gave it to my daughter Dorit as a present. The stone is very rare and the best ones are found in Russia. You can tell if the stone is Russian because they have a horsetail in the center.
What about the blue diamond you are known for?
I was the first one who started with blue and pink and colored diamonds in around 1965. I first bought one in India and when I tried to leave the country I was told that this is a [national treasure] and that I cannot take it with me. I had already bought it in auction. So I paid a lot of money to an Indian to make me one from glass to leave there. The Moussaieff Blue is a small one that I bought for $8.8 million. But I have a much bigger one that I bought [privately] for $25m. to $30m.
How did you get interested in jewels?
My family has been in the business for 12 generations. The first written record of this is Maimonides's brother David, a precious gem dealer in Egypt. Shortly before Genghis Khan came to power, around 1220, he went to Bahrain to buy pearls and fished there in the sea for them, while his family waited for him on shore. He went back and forth to bring them the pearls and went back to the ship. Until one day there was a big storm and the ship sank and he died. But his children went to Bukhara to sell the pearls and settled near Yazd, a city in Persia, because they needed a minyan. There they met women who knew the embroidery business, and the family stayed and worked there until the conquest by Russia in 1860. The family supplied gemstones and pearls to Genghis Khan to be embroidered into his robes.
Who are your celebrity clients?
I have a check if you want to see (digs out a check made out to him by Elizabeth Burton). Peter Sellers was a good friend of mine, and all the big artists stayed in the [London] Hilton and I had a shop in the lobby. Elizabeth Taylor used to stay down the block in the Dorchester. I used to design, and I had a fantastic bracelet made [by George Weil] and I put it in the window because I knew she was there. She came and asked me to show it to her and I put it on her hand. She said, "I'll buy it, but my husband is not here, he is shooting in Holland." It was an emerald and diamond marquis.
[Later that night] she calls me at 2 a.m. that it is urgent to come see her. My wife did not agree. I said no, but she said we are sending you a van from the hotel. So I put on my suit, shaved and went up to her room with a man from reception. She had a big suite on the top floor and the porter told me she was waiting for me. I saw her sitting by this little lamp, and she said, 'Take this damn bracelet off my hand.' She was covered in turtle oil - you know turtles live a long time and the oil keeps the skin fresh - and the bracelet was all slippery and I could not open the safety catch.
So I took a knife I use on watches and broke the safety catch and in doing so accidentally scratched her. She raised hell and the hotel staff heard her screaming and the head of Scotland Yard came and asked me if I was attacking her. But she became a very good client. She mostly loved Italian cameo bracelets.
I have had other celebrity clients: Shirley McLain, Bob Cummings, Frank Sinatra, George Raft.
(An hour after telling this story, sculptor and jewelry designer George Weil pops in to say hello, and says to Moussaieff, "Don't forget to tell them the Elizabeth Taylor story. Remember how you called me in the middle of the night and said I had to go get the bracelet off her hand? Remember how you told me the next day I had to buy you a new suit because you were the one who got the bracelet off but your suit got ruined by all that oil?)
What was your most expensive purchase?
I bought a 272-carat diamond from De Beers. It was perfect. It was in an exhibition at the Tower of London and everyone came to see it. I brought it to the sultan of Brunei, who told me he would take it, but only if I had two, for his two wives. I said okay and he asked, will you bring it now? When will you have it? And I said, I don't know. So he said OK, when you have two, bring them together. I told him, buy it now and when I come again I will bring the other. He asked what he was going to do with just one. He had always wanted a son with his other wife, so I told him to put it under his pillow when he went to sleep and if he had a good dream, then he would have a boy. But he sent it back to me the next day with his chauffeur because things didn't work out that night as he had planned.
The diamond was like a tombstone - who is going to buy a 272-karat diamond? But the sultan's brother [Prince Jefri Bolkiah] bought a shop - Asprey - and I went to see him. I explained that Tiffany has its diamond - the Tiffany Diamond - and you must have a diamond, too - the Asprey Diamond. But he could not buy it from me [directly because of having an exclusive arrangement with the sultan], so I sent it to [another diamond dealer who works with the prince] and he sold it to the sultan's brother and took a commission.
Are you a billionaire?
I studied Kabbala and if you count what you have, there is no luck.
Gemstones are your business, but collecting antiquities is your lifelong hobby in which you have invested untold millions of dollars. Why?
I have a complex. Who am I? What am I? What am I doing here? To what am I connected? Here I'm labeled Bukhari, English, Jewish... They call me many names, but who is that? If I forget Bukhara, what am I? It's not easy. I come from a certain place but that is not who I am. I don't have a foundation. But antiquities are connected to you; their story is connected to you and that's not just money, but it gives you a story, to know who you are. I am not Israeli. In Torah, there is no State of Israel. There is no awareness here of who we are and why we were here and why we left. I am an Ivri [a Hebrew] I come from the land of the Ivrim. Herzl invented this. Also Herzl didn't call this Israel. I'm not connected to [politics in Israel]. I'm an Ivri and from this I live.
You collect artifacts from all over the Holy Land and have even tried to collect objects from ancient Nineveh, first mentioned in Genesis and located in today's Iraq. Were you involved in the looting of Iraq?
There was a seven-year lawsuit, the Republic of Iraq vs Shlomo Moussaieff. In the war in Iraq, everything was looted. Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, also sold things and those things that were biblical. I personally bought through a dealer in Switzerland. I brought the things back to England, I paid duty [and applied for an export license] and was to send them with El Al to Israel. But before departure, the English antiquities authority stopped me and said, "These are ours; we dug these objects up in 1820." [The site at Nineveh was later photographed, which is how the authorities could recognize objects that were taken out.]
I could have won this case. I bought everything legitimately. I had receipts. I paid the customs tax. But my wife decided that she didn't want more publicity, so I eventually gave it all back to Iraq. I declared the round trip shipping costs, for which I was reimbursed by Iraq, but I lost a lot of money.
What is your favorite artifact that you own?
Little coins I found in the Old City and a gold ring with a menora impression from the time of the Second Temple.
How are you able to identify inscriptions with your dyslexia?
I have everything photographed. I cannot immediately register writing when I try to read or look at something. But if I look at the photograph for a long time, the writing comes into focus.
Did you only collect or did you also sell?
I sold to Narkiss, Reifenberg and Sukenik and they taught me what everything is, all the years until I left Israel. [E.L. Sukenik, the father of archeologist Yigael Yadin, was one of the premiere early state archaeologists. Adolf Reifenberg was a renowned archeologist and numismatist, and professor of art history. Bezalel Narkiss was the first director of Hebrew University, an Israel Prize winner and the founder of an index of Jewish art, antiquities and architecture.] When I left Israel, around age 35, I stopped selling and now I only collect.
If you are so connected to the history here, why did you spend so many years in London?
In England people were such gentlemen. Here there was only trouble. [David] Ben-Gurion was a socialist. The attitude was "what was mine was his and what was his was his." It was easy to leave.
(Bursts into song about money and happiness.) I wrote many songs when I was in the British army.
Why do you snub Israel's antiquities laws?
These are ridiculous laws from the time of the Turks. The Antiquities Authority should be teaching and not torturing. They should ignite history. Instead, they find Arab shepherds and beat them and take what they have. What do they have, broken clay pieces? Bravo. All day they sit with a telescope to see who is going in the field to look for something, it's ridiculous. For a 500-millimeter piece of parchment, they will put a man in jail.
If you build a building, you have to stop work, you have to pay for the excavation - not them. This is torture. The laws don't make any sense. This is what they do with their budget? The law should allow more freedom, let anybody display anything in his house, and not make a coin collection worth $10 illegal. They have 600,000 coins in storage, what do they display? A few pieces.
I have artifacts from the time of Abraham. I have artifacts from the second our people were born. They call me a looter. They call me an antiquities thief. Nobody wanted to publish my things [that were not found in situ]. But the museums could only pray to have such a collection as I have. Now that they realize that how much I have and that it is not fake, they all love me, they all want my collections.
What will happen to your 60,000 artifacts after you?
Museums put everything in storage. My wife should auction my collections to people who will not put them in cellars but will love them like I do. n