“Hearing this case will open Pandora’s box.” So stated Justice Anat Baron of the Israeli High Court of Justice, on November 18, 2020 delivering a ruling temporarily postponing the sale of 258 lots from Jerusalem’s L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art at Sotheby’s London auction house. The case, which has drawn public ire and the intervention of HE Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s President (a largely ceremonial office, the incumbent of which traditionally avoids taking sides on political matters), revolves around the Museum of Islamic Arts’ alleged noncompliance with the law regulating deaccessions and sales from museum collections, claims of mismanagement of the government’s oversight of museums, and the emerging legal-historical drama behind the tangled web of local and foreign foundations responsible for the museum’s operation. The auction of 258 lots, consisting of some 380 items from the museum’s collection, was initially planned for October 27. However, due to the outcry of Israeli officials, including the country’s President, and the general public, the sale was postponed at the “last minute“, to a date in late November.
On November 18, Israel’s High Court of Justice heard oral arguments in a petition brought by the Hashava Foundation against the planned sale of these cultural treasures from the museum’s collection. The sale, having been contemplated behind the scenes for some two years, only came to public attention after a partial list of items for sale submitted to the Israel Antiquities Authority for its approval for export from Israel, was leaked and brought to media and public attention, about one month before the planned sale. The ensuing publicity, and the Hashava Foundation’s petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice, have revealed the operations of the Lichtenstein-based Herman de Stern Stiftung (foundation), which was originally entrusted to support the museum, and now claims the museum’s collection as its private property. Basing its conduct on this claim, the museum’s management body, whose board of directors is effectively controlled by the trustees of the Herman de Stern Stiftung, is claimed to have overlooked the obligations owed by a government-recognized and financially supported museum. These obligations require such an institution to provide a detailed and reasoned written rationale for the deaccession of items from its collection, and to provide reasoned documentation for the decision as to how revenues from a sale are to be applied (in this case, to supporting the foundation, rather than directing the monies back into its collection, as otherwise mandated by law).
One area of contention focuses on the nature of the items selected for sale. These have been described by the Herman de Stern foundation and Sotheby’s as, in some cases, second-rate copies, damaged items, and objects without significant cultural or historical value. The petitioner and other experts, on the other hand, consider that many of these items were hand-picked by renowned twentieth century scholars of Islamic art and culture and have asserted that they included one of the rarest and most important watches in history.
In addition to the alleged violations of the Museum Regulations, questions were raised about the application of Israel’s Antiquities Law. This law defines ‘antiquities’ as man-made items produced before the year 1700 CE, (automatically considered antiquities), and man-made items produced after that year which are determined by the Minister of Culture to be “historically significant”. The list submitted by the museum to the Antiquities Authority for permits for export and sale, however, included only those items falling within the first category. Furthermore, apparent confusion over the territorial remit of the law resulted in only two of the more than 140 of those reported antiquities being stopped for export.
An additional 130 lots consisting of items created after 1700 CE were not submitted for review, thus preventing the Minister of Culture from exercising his prerogative to declare any such items as “antiques”.
While the Ministry of Culture and the State Attorney’s Office supported the petition to stop the sale and return the exported items to Israel, court-ordered negotiations between the parties are now underway in an effort to reduce the scope of the sale and ensure that any monies received be funneled directly to the museum. The significant penalty required by Sotheby’s for cancellation or deferral of the sale, approximately £2,000,000, as reported in the press, will undoubtedly create additional and significant concerns for the museum. If the negotiations do not result in resolution of the matter to the satisfaction of the parties, the legal process will continue and further court action would likely ensue.
For the first time in Israel, this petition to the High Court has brought the question of the regulation of museums to the forefront of the public, cultural and legislative debate. Hopefully, the Court will see fit to preserve the cultural treasures from the collection of the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art in trust for the public as a testament to the wishes of the museum’s founder, Vera Salomons, who bequeathed these items in trust to the museum to serve as a bridge between the different populations and beliefs of those living in Israel.
This article was written by Meir Heller and Keren Abelow, lawyers at the law firm E. Landau Law Offices and co-founders of the Hashava Foundation. They were assisted in the writing of this article by Niv Goldberg, consultant to the Hashava Foundation and formerly Collection Manager, Yad Vashem Museum of Holocaust Art.
Image credit: L. A. Meyer Museum of Islamic Art, Ricardo Tulio Gandelman from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons