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Sale of 268 Pieces from L.A Meyer Museum Postponed Last Minute Due To Widespread Objection

Questionable reasons motivating the deaccessioning make many hope the sale will be cancelled altogether

by Agnese Oliveri | 29 October 2020

The L.A. Meyer Museum for Islamic Art is located in Katamon, a beautiful part of West Jerusalem. I remember visiting it in September last year and being incredibly impressed by their Islamic collection and the beautiful Breguet watches. When I read, about a week ago, that they intended to auction off 268 pieces, I was astounded. The auction was supposed to take place on the 27th and 28th of October. It did not take very long to find out that this feeling was widespread, not just by Islamic art historians, but by employees of the museum and Israeli institutional bodies. Luckily, due to the outcry in high places, the auction was postponed the night before it was supposed to take place. The sale indeed ignited questions on the ethics of deaccessioning and on the particular motives behind this move. Decisions will be re-evaluated, and the President of Israel himself was opposing the sale.

The museum was founded in 1974 by Vera Salomon, in memory of her professor Leo Aryeh Meyer, scholar of Islamic arts. A good part of the collection has been a result of the curation of Richard Ettinghausen. Prominent scholar, his name is more than familiar to any student of Islamic art. His involvement testifies already to the importance of the pieces in the collection, picked by one of the most important academics for their uniqueness and fundamental role in their artistic moment. Salomon set up an endowment for the museum to be independent, however questions arose this October as to why then the director felt compelled to sell 5% of their collection. Not just that, prestigious watches of her father’s Breguet collection are also intended for sale, betraying the mission of the museum and the intentions of its founder who gave them for exposition.

The move to sell was initiated two years ago and finalised with the economic struggles generated by the long lockdown afflicting Israel. The Museum Director Nadim Sheiban claims that the large number of pieces going for auction is meant to safeguard the integrity of their collection, as he could have instead just sold some of their most expensive works. However, the unicity of some of these pieces puts in question how they have arranged the selection. Moreover, many wonder why the museum has not attempted to sell its pieces to other institutions in Israel before deciding to auction, so as to honour Vera’s wish to keep the collection public and keep the pieces in Jerusalem. Others have also questioned why the director did not seek help from wealthy philanthropes interested in the integrity of the museum; the proceeds from the auction are estimated to amount to 6-8 million £, a number that patrons of Islamic art would spend to maintain the impressive collection in Jerusalem. Furthermore, Raz Samira, deputy chair of the International Council of Museums tells the Art Newspaper that the museum is not even in dire economic conditions. Unlike many museums in Israel, the museum is not in deficit, and the fact that its funding relies on a yearly endowment, just as Vera intended, means that it has a security that most museums do not have.

But the doubts concerning this sale do not end here. Statements made by the Director to justify the sale, actually make it all the more unjustifiable. The claim reported in the Jerusalem Post that some of the pieces ‘would not be remembered if they saw them in an exhibition’ and that they were items kept in storerooms, bothered the many scholars who in fact remember the works well. Nonetheless, they found it astounding that the Director of a museum could say something so dismissive about its collection. Employee Rachel Hasson was tasked to compile a preliminary list two years ago and made sure these were mostly damaged items. She said to Hareetz that she was on the verge of tears when she discovered the finalised list of items, as these were ‘master of the master’. On Kan Broadcasting company, Sheiban justifies the sale of magnificent objects such as the unique helm with Thuluth script by stating he does not sanctify war. He closed the gallery of the knives and had no care for items of major art historical importance, as they had been used in or were meant for battle. I was particularly stunned to read from Hareetz, that the Director, a Palestinian, had even tried to sell a glazed Tile and a glass vessel from Al Aqsa. At least, these were the only two items that were stopped by the authorities from leaving Israel, as reported by Hareetz.

In public forums and Facebook groups, scholars of Islamic arts were more than perplexed when reading such statements. Hareetz reports that when the Director of the Department of Museums and Plastic Arts in the Culture Ministry, Shirit Keessen, threatened to pull out from founding because of the sale, Sheiban replied ‘I wasn’t aware that I had to inform them’. The more I think about it the more it seems absurd. The questions surrounding this sale are copious and it is hard to find an explanation. Why sell through a foreign auction house? Why sell unique pieces under the guise of storeroom scraps?

Going to Sotheby’s to look at the pieces for the last time, it would be an understatement to say that the interest was very high. Sotheby’s employees were all busy with collectors and flipping through catalogue pages. I’d say the majority of attendees were looking to buy artworks from the collection. I do not blame them; for a collector, this is a rare occasion to purchase items of such historical importance. I looked at these collectors and imagined how their houses would look with those rock crystal animals, an Iznik jar, or one of the collection’s magnificent carpets. Their friends must rejoice at dinner parties when handling the prestigious piece, whilst people like me would return to the museum years later and think about all that is gone forever.

I had already written half of this article and was waiting to discover the outcome of the sale the next day, when news of its deferral hit my phone screen. I rejoiced. Interestingly enough, the lots are no longer present on the Sotheby’s website, only articles announcing the auction on the 27th and 28th of October remain. What is to happen is hard to predict. However, it is comforting to know that these decisions have been questioned, to the extent of the sales being stopped last minute. Hopefully more thorough investigations will help salvage most of these pieces or will encourage the director to find another solution altogether.


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