A last-minute reprieve for Islamic Museum auction

Until a day or so ago, over 200 works stored and exhibited at the museum were due to be offered for auction at Sotheby’s in London.

Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem  (photo credit: ISRAEL'S FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTRY)
Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem
Like a good old Agatha Christie murder whodunit or some intricately weaved soap opera, the brouhaha surrounding the planned sale of hundreds of items from the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem just keeps a rollin’ on.
Until a day or so ago, over 200 works stored and exhibited at the museum were due to be offered for auction at Sotheby’s in London later today (October 27) and tomorrow. There has been a sudden about-face and, for now at least, museum General Director Nadim Sheiban has asked for the sale to be held in abeyance.
The artifacts, which take in some archaeological gems and valuable timepieces, were to be sold in order to shore up the dwindling financial support provided to the museum by its principal backer and by the owner of said items, the Hermann de Stern Foundation. The latter, which is not based in Israel, covers around two-thirds of the museum’s outgoings. This is apparently due to the drop in the foundation’s capital due to fluctuating global financial forces and hence has had a significant and dramatic effect on the museum’s cash flow.
In fact, the decision to sell off the works was taken in 2018, well before the current novel coronavirus-induced economic crisis, although the pandemic has surely not helped matters.
The decision, which only came to light recently was roundly criticized by leading institutions and figures in the country’s cultural sector across the board. Even President Reuven Rivlin stuck in his stately two cents suggesting that efforts should be made, on various levels, to prevent the cultural treasures from leaving the country. Nava Kessler, head of the local branch of the International Council of Museums, called the intended sale “unethical” and criticized Sheiban and the museum for not applying the principle of transparency.
It appears that the outrage has produced results, and a representative for the Foundation announced on Monday, just two days before the Sotheby’s auction date, that it was withdrawing the lots following calls by Rivlin and others to keep the artifacts in Israel. It is understood that Minister of Culture Chili Tropper was also instrumental in heading the auction off at the pass.
The Islamic Museum representative stated that the decision to suspend the sale in London “was made in light of the museum’s fruitful dialogue with the Ministry of Culture, and also in light of the great respect the Foundation has for the President of Israel Mr. Reuven Rivlin.” The representative added that: “The Foundation’s decision was taken even though this is a private collection and the sale of the items was in keeping with all the provisions of the law.”
This is not, however, the end of the saga. “The Foundation management,” the representative continued, “hopes that the deferment [of the sale] will make it possible to arrive at agreements in the coming weeks that will also be acceptable to the Ministry of Culture.”
Sheiban was initially unavailable for comment but he eventually uploaded an emotive Facebook post in which he vented some of his feelings about the way the affair has been handled and addressed by various officials. “What haven’t I been accused of?” he asks. “Lawlessness, robbery, plotting with oligarchs, perks, running the Museum for Islamic Art into the ground.”
Sheiban noted his impressive professional backdrop, including 10 years as manager of the Jerusalem Foundation’s Projects Department, focusing on the cultural sector, and as a qualified attorney. He wrote that he abstained from making any comments about the situation with the museum thus far, while talks between the Foundation and the Ministry of Culture were ongoing.
He also takes Tropper to task over a post the minister put out about the prospective auction. “I would like to first note that the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art – and the honorable minister should really get the museum’s name right – is not the first museum in Israel to sell works of art. The Israel Museum preceded it when it sold masterpieces by renowned artists, the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art sold rare Judaica items to private collectors, and Ramat Gan Museum and other museums [sold works].” It is, according to Sheiban, a simple matter of survival. “Museums in Israel and the world, who are looking to stay vital, to be active, to provide employment and education, are forced to sell artifacts.”
The museum general director also rebuts Tropper’s accusation of a lack of transparency over the planned sell off in London. “The minister’s declaration that ‘the museum chose, in a non-transparent and inappropriate manner, to sell many of its treasures’ is far from the truth. The museum acted with full transparency and obtained approval for the sale from the Israel Antiquities Authority which, as far as I know, is a government authority. Your ministry, honorable minister, knew about the sale back in August, before the works left Israel. But he did not bother to express any interest in the matter.”
Sheiban even goes so far as to suggest that the minister had some ulterior motive in criticizing the museum. “Maybe [the ministerial outrage] was designed to distract public opinion from the minister’s helplessness over the catastrophic and ongoing crisis of the world of culture and art?” Tough talk indeed.
For now, at least, the Museum for Islamic Art treasures are staying put.
Stay tuned.