Following Outrage, Museum for Islamic Art Postpones Sotheby’s Sale

Jerusalem’s Museum for Islamic Art has postponed its upcoming Sotheby’s sale after controversy and criticism from the Israeli government and cultural authorities.

Oct 27, 2020By Charlotte Davis, BA Art History
Early Iznik blue and white calligraphic pottery hanging ornament, Turkey, ca. 1480, via Sotheby’s; Some of the items up for bid at the upcoming Sotheby’s sale, 2020, via Sotheby’s


The L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem has postponed its sale of Islamic artifacts and antiquities at Sotheby’s London after outrage from Israeli and international cultural authorities. 


The postponement comes after the Museum for Islamic Art’s decision to sell artifacts to raise funds. The museum initially moved to sell some of its collection during the financial crisis of 2017. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum has been closed for the better part of the year and is apparently under further financial duress, which sealed the decision.


Nadim Sheiban, the museum director, said “We were afraid we could lose the museum and be forced to close the doors…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.”


Cultural authorities have tried to prevent the sale of the artifacts, claiming that it is ‘unethical’ for museums to sell items to private collectors. The Israel Antiques Authority (IAA) prevented two artifacts from going up for bid because they were discovered within Israel. However, due to caveats with artifacts not originating within Israel and Palestine, the remaining items were sent to London.


News of the sale also sparked harsh criticism from the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin along with Israel’s culture ministry. The museum has stated that after consulting with both Rivlin and the ministry, it has decided to put the auction on hold. 

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The Sotheby’s Sale

Early Iznik blue and white calligraphic pottery hanging ornament, Turkey, ca. 1480, via Sotheby’s


The upcoming Sotheby’s sale is made up of approximately 250 rare Islamic artifacts and antiquities, estimated to yield up to $9 million for the museum. Around 190 of the items were to go up for bid on Tuesday at Sotheby’s London, with 60 remaining watches from the Museum for Islamic Art’s permanent collection scheduled to be sold on October 27th and 28th. 


The Tuesday sale of artifacts from the Museum for Islamic Art includes carpets, manuscripts, pottery, Ottoman textiles, silver-inlaid-metalwork, Islamic arms and armor, a page from a Qu’ran, a 15th-century helmet and a 12th-century bowl portraying a Persian Prince. These items were estimated to bring in between $4-6 million. 


The watches and clocks, up for sale on the following day, include three watches designed by Abraham-Louis Breguet, a famous Parisian horologist whose pieces were worn by 17th and 18th-century royals such as Marie Antoinette. They were estimated to bring in $2-3 million. 


Sheiban told The Times of Israel, “We looked at piece after piece and made some very hard decisions…We didn’t want to harm the core and prestige of the collection.”


The L.A. Mayer Museum For Islamic Art: Preserving Islamic Culture

The L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art, via Sotheby’s


Founded by philanthropist Vera Bryce Salomons in the 1960s, the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art holds a world-famous collection of art and artifacts. It opened to the public in 1974, promoting the appreciation and dialogue of Islamic art in the public sphere. Salomons named the museum after her teacher and friend Leo Aryeh Mayer, a professor of Islamic art and archaeology. Both Salomons and Mayer believed that Islamic art and culture would contribute to peaceful coexistence between Jewish and Arab cultures. They also recruited Professor Richard Ettinghausen, a renowned scholar in Islamic art. 


The museum is home to thousands of Islamic artifacts and antiquities which date from the 7th-19th centuries. It also holds an antique watch collection that was inherited from the Salomons family. These items are in nine galleries that are organized in chronological order, explaining the art, values and beliefs of Islamic civilization. The Museum for Islamic Art also held a contemporary Arab art exhibition in 2008 that held the work of 13 Arab artists — the first of its kind in an Israeli museum to be headed by an Arab curator. 


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By Charlotte DavisBA Art HistoryCharlotte is a contributing writer from Portland, Oregon now based in London, England. I’m an art historian with extensive knowledge in art history, classics, ancient art and archaeology.