After outcry, Israeli museum calls off sale of Islamic art

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Banners for two current exhibitions are displayed outside of the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, Wednesday, March 10, 2021. Israel's premier museum for Islamic art has scrapped the planned auction of scores of rare and precious items after public outcry over the attempted sale, which had been expected to fetch millions of dollars from wealthy private collectors. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

JERUSALEM – Israel’s premier museum for Islamic art has scrapped the planned auction of scores of rare and precious items after public outcry over the attempted sale, which had been expected to fetch millions of dollars from wealthy private collectors.

In a settlement struck Wednesday, the Sotheby’s auction house agreed to return 268 items from London back to the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem.

The agreement ends a saga that drew broad condemnation and threatened to gut one of Israel’s prized public art collections. Art experts criticized the attempted sale to private collectors, saying it had been hidden from the public and violated the museum’s founding mission to edify the Israeli public about the Islamic world through art.

As part of the arrangement, the Al Thani Collection, an art foundation funded by the ruling family of the energy-rich Gulf Arab state of Qatar, “will generously provide an annual sponsorship to the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art” for 10 years, while one of the Islamic Art Museum’s pieces will be given on long-term loan to the Al Thani Collection’s gallery at the Hotel de la Marine in Paris.

The Israeli daily Haaretz said that Sotheby’s would receive a 2 million pound cancellation fee. Neither Sotheby’s nor the museum would provide details on the fee or the annual funding for the museum, though the auction house said “given the circumstances, Sotheby's reduced its withdrawal fees.”

The item to be loaned is an intricately decorated, 11th-century silver jug, part of a hoard of silver objects discovered in the early 20th century near Nivahand, in northeastern Iran. The item was purchased early last century by art collector Ralph Harari, who later sold it to the museum’s founder, Vera Salomons.

An Arabic inscription beneath a frieze of running animals on the jug reads: “Perfect blessing, lasting wealth, abundant happiness and overall security to its owner.” It was not one of the items originally up for auction at Sotheby’s in October sale.

Israel and Qatar do not have formal diplomatic relations, but contacts exist 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 the cooperation between the Islamic Art Museum and the Al Thani Collection.