an early medieval silver vessel from the collection of the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem ( Photo by Avshalom Avital, courtesy Sotheby's)

Back in October of 2020, the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem (also known as the LA Mayer Institute for Islamic Art) postponed a planned auction at Sotheby’s in London after facing fierce backlash for its decision to deaccession 255 items from its collection. Last week, the prized items were saved from deaccession with the unlikely help of the Qatari royal family.

On Wednesday, March 10, Sotheby’s announced that Al Thani Collection Foundation, named after Qatar’s ruling family, has signed a deal with the museum’s board and the Israeli Ministry of Culture to provide the necessary funds to ensure that the pieces are returned to the museum.

The LA Mayer Museum for Islamic was founded by philanthropist Vera Bryce Salomons, a great-niece of David Salomons, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London and a member of parliament. The institution was established in honor of Leo Arie Mayer, a professor of Islamic Art and Archaeology at the Hebrew University. The museum, 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, 64 rare clocks and watches, and other valued items.

A large Qur’an leaf in muhaqqaq script, Egypt, Mamluk, late 14th century (courtesy Sotheby’s)

News about the museum’s intention to offer the items for sale promoted outcry by Israeli art world figures and politicians, including the country’s President Reuven Rivlin, who asked the government to intervene in the sale.

Nadim Sheiban, the museum’s director, said in interviews with the Israeli press that most of the works selected for the auction were either duplicates or in storage. But museum professionals from the local chapter of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the Israel Antiquities Authority have contested Sheiban’s assertion, according to the Art Newspaper.

Under the terms of the agreement, brokered by Sotheby’s, the Al Thani Collection Foundation will provide an annual sponsorship to the Jerusalem museum for the next 10 years (the sum was not specified). In return, a Medieval silver vessel from the collection will be exhibited for “regular extended periods” over the next decade at the Al Thani Collection Foundation’s planned museum space at the Hôtel de la Marine in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. There will also be other exchanges of loans between the two institutions, according to the announcement. 

Though Qatar shares no diplomatic relations with Israel, an unofficial trade relationship between the two countries goes back to the mid-1990s. 

“The LA Mayer Museum for Islamic Art is a fascinating institution that has captured our imagination,” a spokesperson for the Al Thani Collection Foundation explained in a statement. Their founding vision, which has endured over the decades, shares so many of our ideals for open exchange between cultures. We are very pleased to play a part in the survival of a unique institution that makes a meaningful difference to the communities around it.”

Located in the former Palestinian neighborhood of Talbiyah in west Jerusalem, the museum is inaccessible to millions of Palestinians in east Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, who are barred from entering Israeli territory. Still, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport Hili Tropper hailed the agreement with the Qatari foundation as a “great tribute to the spirit of cross-cultural cooperation.”

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...