Israel’s leading museum of Islamic art has scrapped the planned auction of dozens of rare and precious items after public outcry over the attempted sale, which was expected to raise millions of dollars from wealthy private collectors.
In a deal reached Wednesday, auction house Sotheby’s agreed to return 268 London items to the LA Mayer Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem.
The agreement ends a saga that generated widespread condemnation and threatened to destroy one of Israel’s prized collections of public art. Art experts criticized the attempted sale to private collectors, saying it had been hidden from the public and violated the museum’s founding mission of edifying the Israeli public about the Islamic world through art.
As part of the deal, the Al Thani Collection, an art foundation funded by the ruling family of the energy-rich Arab Gulf state of Qatar, “will generously provide an annual sponsorship to the LA Mayer Museum of Islamic Art” for 10 years. while one of the pieces from the Museum of Islamic Art will be given on long-term loan to the Al Thani Collection gallery at the Hotel de la Marine in Paris.
The Israeli daily Haaretz said Sotheby’s would receive a cancellation fee of 2 million pounds. Neither Sotheby’s nor the museum provided details on the annual fee or funding for the museum, although the auction house said “under the circumstances, Sotheby’s lowered its withdrawal fees.”
The object to be loaned is an intricately decorated 11th century silver jug from a treasure trove of silver objects discovered in the early 20th century near Nivahand in northeastern Iran. The item was purchased early in the last century by art collector Ralph Harari, who later sold it to the museum’s founder, Vera Salomons.
An Arabic inscription below a frieze of animals running into the jar reads: “Perfect blessing, lasting wealth, abundant happiness, and general safety for its owner.” It was not one of the items originally auctioned at Sotheby’s in October.
Israel and Qatar do not have formal diplomatic relations, but there are contacts to facilitate Qatar’s transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Sotheby’s said it had facilitated cooperation between the Museum of Islamic Art and the Al Thani Collection.
The Museum of Islamic Art and the Hermann de Stern Foundation, which had started the Sotheby’s auction, welcomed the deal, saying it will “ensure the continued operation of the museum over time.”
“This is a truly momentous end result and we are delighted to partner with The Al Thani Collection Foundation in this way to further our shared goals of increasing cultural exchange while allowing the museum to continue to enhance art and culture for the benefit of the people. Israelis who love the public and art, “the museum and foundation said in a joint statement.
The Al Thani Collection said it was “very pleased to be involved in the survival of a unique institution that makes a significant difference to the communities around it.”
Items in the museum’s collection, including several centerpieces and prized antique clocks, were auctioned at Sotheby’s in October. Stern’s Hermann Foundation, a Liechtenstein-based trust that funds most of the museum’s budget, said the sale was intended to cover the cost of maintaining the institution. He insisted that he had the legal right to sell the items.
The Hashava Foundation, an Israeli art theft prevention organization, petitioned the Supreme Court in November to stop the auction. He said the sale was “a serious violation” of Israel’s laws governing museums and antiquities, and that it would cause “irreversible damage and significant loss to the general public.”
Meir Heller, founder of Hashava, said the organization was proud that the petition “achieved its goal and resulted in the return of this rare and precious collection to Israel and its display to the public.”
The museum was established in the 1960s by Salomons, the scion of a British Jewish aristocratic family who died in 1969 and was named after Leo Arie Mayer, a leading Middle Eastern scholar. It is home to thousands of Islamic artifacts dating from the 7th to the 19th centuries. It also has a collection of vintage watches inherited from the Salomons family, including dozens of the famous Parisian watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet. His clocks adorned European royalty in the 17th and 18th centuries, including Marie Antoinette.
Among the items up for auction were a 15th-century Ottoman helmet inlaid with silver calligraphy, a 12th-century bowl depicting a Persian prince, and a collection of antique clocks, including three designed by Breguet.
The removal of the artwork sparked public outcry from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Israeli Culture Minister Hili Tropper, museum curators and academics, and forced the auction to be postponed and eventually stopped.
“I am delighted that all of our strict efforts to preserve the entire collection of the LA Mayer Museum intact have come to such a successful conclusion,” said Tropper, saying that the “generosity of the Al Thani Collection Foundation is a great tribute to the spirit of intercultural cooperation “.