A Kazak “Fachralo” rug, Southwest Caucasus, mid-19th century (all images courtesy of Sotheby’s)

The Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem (also known as the L.A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art) has postponed an auction that was scheduled for today, October 27, at Sotheby’s in London, after facing backlash for its decision to deaccession 255 items from its collection. The museum, which is currently closed due to a second COVID-19 lockdown in Israel, said that selling the items is necessary for its financial survival.

In a statement on Monday, Sotheby’s announced that the sale was postponed to November. “The aim of these sales remains to safeguard and further the founding vision of the museum and to advance its work in fostering cross-cultural dialogue and understanding,” the statement said. “Sotheby’s looks forward to working with the museum to brings these plans to fruition in the near future.”

The L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art, which opened in west Jerusalem in 1974, holds a collection of over 5,000 items. The 225 that were offered for sale include a 14th-century Mamluk Quran leaf, a 19th-century Kazak carpet, a 16th-century Andalusian mosaic pottery tile, a collection of rare jewels, and other valued items.

A large Qur’an leaf in muhaqqaq script, Egypt, Mamluk, late 14th century

News about the proposed sale promoted the outcry of public figures in Israel, including the country’s President Reuven Rivlin who asked the government to intervene in the sale. “The assets have a deeper and more significant value than money,” he said.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported today that the country’s culture ministry had asked the museum to disclose documents about the ownership of the items in an attempt to prevent the sale. According to the report, the museum has not yet provided these documents, saying that “the foundation is the one that decided on the sale and it is the one that signed the contract with Sotheby’s.”

In an email to Hyperallergic today, Sotheby’s confirmed that the auction was postponed “further to discussions between the L.A Mayer museum and the Israeli Government.”

While many art world figures in Israel have chastised the museum for the planned deaccession, some have defended the institution, pointing the blame toward Israeli authorities. “With proper care, this sale could have been prevented,” wrote Yehudit Kol Inbar, former director of the Museums Division at the Yad-Vashem Holocaust History Museum, in a column for Haaretz. Inbar called on the government and local authorities to increase support for struggling museums, adding, “It’s easy and unprofessional to criticize museums like the Museum of Islamic art that are asking to sell artwork to stay afloat.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...