Jerusalem’s Islamic art museum says it has to auction off part of its collection

Facing financial pressure, Jerusalem’s L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art will sell part of its storied collection in October through Sotheby’s London.

Nearly 200 objects of Islamic art from the museum’s storage and 60 clocks and watches from its permanent collection will be sold on October 27 and 28 in order to enhance the museum’s income and stave off future financial woes, said museum director Nadim Sheiban.

“We looked at piece after piece and made some very hard decisions,” said Sheiban, who worked with his chief curator and an outside consultant in Islamic art for almost three years on the effort. “We didn’t want to harm the core and prestige of the collection.”

It’s a very unusual and worrying move, said Gideon Avni, who heads the Archaeological Division in the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“It starts with one museum and in our situation now, it could happen with other museums,” said Avni. “The museum professionals have to yell and say that the government has to interfere and help out. These objects are worth something. Where have we come to if a museum has to sell what it has to display?”

A silver-inlaid Aqqoyunlu turban helmet, Turkey or Persia, second half 15th century will be sold by the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art by Sotheby’s on October 27, 2020 (Courtesy Sotheby’s)

It isn’t all that unusual for a museum to sell off works that are either duplicates or in storage, responded a Sotheby’s spokesperson.

“Museums are such an integral part of our ecosystem, and of society in general, and so we are proud to be able to help them navigate, in order that future generations can benefit from them for years to come,” wrote the spokesperson in an email to The Times of Israel.

Sheiban, who helms the museum founded by British philanthropist Vera Salomons 40 years ago in order to bridge gaps between Jews and Muslims, was first moved to sell off parts of the museum’s collection during the 2017 financial crisis that reduced the holdings of the foundation created to support the museum. The coronavirus sealed his decision.

“We were afraid we could lose the museum and be forced to close the doors,” he said. “If we didn’t act now, we would have to shut down in five to seven years. We decided to act and not wait for the collapse of the museum.”

The art, stressed Sheiban, is not considered a national treasure, since most of its objects were brought from all over the world and not found in Israel or Palestine.

But “it’s an important collection. We hold one of the best collections of its kind in the world, and we will continue preserving it,” he said.

That distinction is what allowed the museum to legally sell some of its holdings, said Avni.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has the authority to grant permission for any ancient object that leaves the country. Yet most of the collection from the Museum for Islamic Art does not fit that description.

“They passed us the list and there were one or two items that we said were important for the history of the land of Israel and have to stay here,” said Avni.

The facade of the L.A. Mayer Museum for the Islamic Arts in Jerusalem (Courtesy Sotheby’s)

Most of the 190 items being sold at Sotheby’s are beautiful and worthwhile, but were collected from different countries, reflecting the art and architecture of the Islamic world.

“Sadly, as much as we tried to check this legally to be able to say they have to stay in Israel, we couldn’t,” said Avni. “But it’s very unusual and worrying. I can’t think of another museum that sold off its collection; it goes against the very nature of a museum that collects objects.”

Sotheby’s said it worked closely with the museum, carefully selecting works that would deliver the necessary financial outcome while protecting the integrity of the core collection as much as possible. The vast majority of what is being offered for sale was either duplicates or in storage.

The sale of Islamic works, comprising objects, manuscripts and rugs and carpets, is estimated to bring a total between $4.13 million to $6.1 million. The watches and objects of vertu will be offered on the auction’s second day, with a combined estimate of $2.2 million – $3.4 million.

“In terms of arts of the Islamic world, this is one of the greatest collections to come to the market in almost a decade,” said the spokesperson. “What is particularly special is to be able to span such a range of time, covering almost every part of Islamic production.”

The Prince Regent’s Resonance Watch bought by the future King George IV of England on October 2, 1818, will be s)ld by Jerusalem’s L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art at Sotheby’s London on October 28, 2020 (Courtesy Sotheby’s_

The museum benefactor, Salomons, was a student and devotee of Islamic art and architecture, and gathered a collection of Islamic calligraphy, filigree jewelry, features of Islamic architecture, adding the valuable watch collection that belonged to her father, David Salomons, an early 20th century British industrialist and world-renowned authority on Swiss watchmaker Breguet.

Some 60 items from his collection will be sold on the second day of the sale. There will still be 160 objects from the watch collection at the museum, said Sheiban.

The top lots of the watch sale, three Breguet pocket watches, have a mythical provenance, according to Sotheby’s. The three timepieces present Breguet’s mechanical genius and revolutionary inventions, and represent his extensive clientele, including a watch made for the future King George IV of the UK, (estimated at about $514,000-$771,000) and a thermometer watch made for Princess Caroline Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, estimated at $381,831-$254,554.

“This should hold us for a long time,” said Sheiban, who reopened the museum in mid-June, and a new exhibit, “In Time,” on August 1, before closing again in September, following the guidelines of a countrywide closure. “We believe that the museum will survive for years ahead because of the decisions we made in the last few years.”

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