A museum in Israel has sparked outrage with plans to sell dozens of rare Islamic antiquities, including centuries-old carpets, armaments and ceramics from across the Middle East, at a public auction.
The L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem plans to put 190 pieces on the block at Sotheby's on Tuesday and to auction off more than 60 antique watches and timepieces later this week. The rare pieces are expected to fetch several million dollars.
Israel's Culture Ministry has condemned the sale and vowed to do everything it can to prevent it. President Reuven Rivlin said he was following the issue with “concern” and called on authorities to prevent the sale of such cultural assets.
The museum declined to comment on the auction, and Sotheby's did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The items up for bidding include a 15th-century helmet designed to be worn over a turban and decorated with inlaid silver calligraphy, a 12th-century bowl depicting a Persian prince and intricate antique carpets from Egypt and what is now Turkey.
The watch auction on Wednesday will include three watches designed by the famed Parisian horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet, whose timepieces adorned European royalty in the 17th and 18th centuries, including Marie Antoinette.
The museum was established in the 1960s by Vera Salomons, the scion of a British-Jewish aristocratic family, and named for Leo Arie Mayer, a prominent scholar of the Middle East. It houses thousands of Islamic artifacts dating from the 7th to the 19th centuries. It also has a collection of antique watches handed down by the Salomons family, including dozens designed by Breguet.
The Holy Land was part of various Islamic empires for more than 1,000 years, and the museum aims to promote understanding between Jews and mostly Muslim Arabs, who make up around 20% of Israel's population.
The museum has been closed for much of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the auction has reportedly been in the works for two years, and the popular museum is widely believed to be financially stable.
Antiquities officials and experts say the central purpose of museums is to bring valuable artifacts out of private collections to preserve them and display them to the public. With the Sotheby's auction, the Museum of Islamic Art is doing the exact opposite.
Nava Kessler, the chair of the Israeli Association of Museums, said it is unethical and unheard of for a museum to sell items to private collectors.
"It’s a very bad thing," said Kessler, whose organization is affiliated with the Paris-based International Council of Museums, which sets professional and ethical standards. "I was so ashamed that it happened in Israel."
She said even if the museum were suffering financially, the ethical response would have been to find a buyer among other museums or cultural institutions, a process that takes time. Instead, antiquities authorities only learned of the planned sale in recent weeks.
The Israel Antiquities Authority was able to prevent two artifacts from going to auction because they had been discovered in Israel. But the museum was able to ship the remaining items to London.
Michael Sebbane, the authority's director of national treasures, said officials were “in shock” when they learned about the sale, which he said shows a “lack of professionalism.”
"This is a collection that is so important," he said. “It is a museum that we would never dream would do something like this. This is not just any museum.”
He expected private collectors to quickly snatch up all the pieces, both because they are rare and because their provenance is practically guaranteed since they come from a respected museum.
"They are selling items that are very important, very unique, and the moment they sell them the public will have lost them," he said. "If a private collector buys them, you won’t see them again."
Israeli Culture Minister Hili Tropper said authorities were surprised to learn in recent weeks that such a “valuable and unprecedented” sale was in the works.
“We will use every legal and public means to prevent the sale of these inalienable assets of the Islamic Museum in Jerusalem,” he said in a statement, adding that the pieces have “great historical and artistic value.”