As published in Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2015
Shlomo Moussaieff of Herzliya, Israel, and London, England, who owned the world’s largest private collection of Near Eastern antiquities, surpassing that of many major museums, died in Israel on June 29, 2015, at the age of 92.
To the very end, he never stopped buying. “Pay and they will bring you,” he would say. And antiquities dealers, both legitimate and otherwise, would beat a path to his door both on Grosvenor Square in London and on the entire 14th floor of the Daniel Hotel in Herzliya. He had no concern for whether the object was looted or not. If he didn’t buy it, someone else would, was his credo.
There was no end to what he would buy, although his collection of Judaica was an especial focus of his last years.
Many scholars despised him, especially archaeologists who spend their lives digging with a toothbrush to unearth details of our past that are sometimes rich in meaning but mostly unimpressive physically. Other scholars welcomed the opportunity to bring to the public rare and often important artifacts, especially inscriptions, which, they argued, were of great significance to our understanding of ancient history and would otherwise be lost to us.
Major museums in Israel, including the Israel Museum and the Bible Lands Museum—both in Jerusalem—displayed items from his collection, including, for example, elegant glass fashioned by Ennion, the greatest of the Greek glassmakers, of which Moussaieff owned more than either the Sorbonne or the British Museum—to say nothing of the Metropolitan in New York.
Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv awarded Moussaieff an honorary doctorate in gratitude for his gift of rare Jewish mystical texts (kabbalah) and doubtless in the hope that more would come from Shlomo’s Judaica collection.
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) had a different, often contradictory, attitude toward him. On one occasion it had Moussaieff and his daughter searched for contraband at the airport. (Of course, they found nothing.) At other times, the IAA courted him.
Numerous highly respected scholars published books and articles based on his collection, especially regarding the inscriptions on ostraca (pottery sherds), seals and bullae, jars, arrowheads, weights, etc.
In 2003 a festschrift (a collection of scholarly articles) was published in Moussaieff’s honor with contributions by a roster of prominent scholars that included W.G. Lambert, Mark Geller, Aren Maeir, Peter van der Veen, Irit Ziffer, Ada Yardeni, Bezalel Porten, Meir Lubetski, André Lemaire, Dan Barag, Michael Heltzer, Robert Deutsch, Edward Lipiński and others.a1 These studies were mostly about items in Moussaieff’s collection.
After more than five years, the “forgery trial of the century” concluded in a Jerusalem courtroom and defendants Oded Golan and Robert Deutsch were acquitted of all forgery charges. In our free eBook James, Brother of Jesus: The Forgery Trial of the Century, Hershel Shanks explains why he believes the now-famous “James Ossuary” inscription is authentic. Plus, he provides behind-the-scenes analysis of the trial and its key players.
Although Shlomo enlisted scholars to publish some categories of artifacts in his collection, for the most part it was simply placed in vitrines roughly sorted by category, unpublished, unstudied, uncataloged, housed in room after room of his homes or piled on the floor or hung on the wall, often in disarray—mosaics, inscriptions, tombstones, sculptures, an ancient synagogue lintel, altars, rings, metal objects, magic incantation bowls; huge things and small things; from every ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern culture you can think of.
He was deaf to those who urged him to make provision for his collection on his death, or so he claimed. He professed not to care what happened to his collection on his death. In mid-2013, bent and frail but clear of mind, he told me he would leave his collection to the Israel Museum, the Bible Lands Museum and a third museum that he had not yet chosen.
No doubt Moussaieff has purchased some forgeries in his lifetime of collecting, but none of his most important inscriptions has been so proved. Two of his most famous inscriptions are the so-called Moussaieff Ostraca, one known as the Three Shekels ostracon and the other as the Widow’s Plea ostracon. Both have been published in BAR.b Both were alleged to be forgeries in the Forgery Trial of the Century, but were returned to Moussaieff at the conclusion of the trial upon the defendants’ acquittal. Legitimate questions remain, however, concerning their authenticity. Epigraphy specialist Robert Deutsch calls these ostraca “problematic.” André Lemaire, renowned paleographer at the Sorbonne, says they have problems. Joseph Naveh, Israel’s leading paleographer prior to his death in 2011, on first examination said they were good, but later changed his mind.c Others claim they are forgeries. Leading French scholars, however, published them as authentic.2
Shlomo Moussaieff was born in 1923 in Jerusalem in a Bukharan family that traced its lineage to Maimonides, the great 12th-century Jewish author of the Mishneh Torah and the philosophical treatise The Guide for the Perplexed.d His was not a happy home, however. At 12, Shlomo fled his parental home for good and lived as a waif in the ancient caves of the Sanhedria Cemetery. The coins and ancient lamps he found there marked the beginning of his career as an antiquities dealer.
As a descendant of Maimonides, Shlomo was especially proud to have acquired three autograph pages by the hand of Maimonides himself. These transformed his life. When Israel’s rabbinical authorities built their headquarters (Hechal Shlomo) in downtown Jerusalem, they wanted Shlomo Moussaieff’s Maimonides autographs for their museum. Shlomo refused to sell. The rabbinical authorities found a way, however. Shlomo, who, by this time, had an antiquities shop near Jaffa Gate, was having some trouble with the authorities who were threatening to take away his license. Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek arranged to have the problem “adjusted,” and Shlomo was given a promised rent-free shop in the Jerusalem Hilton if he would give up the Maimonides autographs. When Teddy failed to convince the Jerusalem Hilton owners of the plan, however, the owners of the London Hilton came forward with an offer of a long-term lease for $5,000 a year. It worked. Moussaieff accepted and gave up the Maimonides autographs. The deal prompted Shlomo’s 30-year move to London. To this day the Moussaieff name is the only one displayed on the outside of the London Hilton. It has become a jewelry store operated by Moussaieff’s wife, Aliza.
In 2003 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., mounted a special exhibit consisting solely of seven of the world’s rarest and greatest diamonds displayed in a single vitrine. One of these diamonds, a nearly perfect red diamond of more than 5 carats, is known as the Moussaieff Red.
Shlomo Moussaieff is survived by his wife of 68 years; three daughters; and two grandchildren. His eldest daughter, Dorrit, is the First Lady of Iceland, married to President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson.
“Renowned Collector Shlomo Moussaieff Dies at 92” by Hershel Shanks was originally published in Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2015.
b. Hershel Shanks, “The ‘Three Shekels’ and ‘Widow’s Plea’ Ostraca: Real or Fake?” BAR 29:03.
d. Hershel Shanks, “Magnificent Obsession: The Private World of an Antiquities Collector,” BAR 22:03.
1. Robert Deutsch, ed., Shlomo: Studies in Epigraphy, Iconography, History and Archaeology in Honor of Shlomo Moussaieff (Tel Aviv-Jaffa: Archaeological Center Publications, 2003).
2. Pierre Bordreuil, Felice Israel and Dennis Pardee, “Deux ostraca paléo-hébreux de la collection Sh. Moussaieff,” Semitica 46 (1997), p. 49.
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