Museum brings wealth of controversy to Israel Theft encouraged, archaeologists say

May 11, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Elie Borowski pleaded with his Jewish parents to flee Poland from the Nazi invasion in 1939. They scoffed at the young man's warnings.

He left alone and volunteered to fight in the French army. When his family was devoured in the tempest of the war, he vowed to find a way to combat hatred for his people with understanding of their culture.

His solution opens today in Jerusalem, where a fortune in biblical antiquities the wealthy art dealer personally collected over 45 years goes on display in a new museum he built.

The president of Israel and other notables will be there to applaud the opening of the strikingly designed $12 million museum. But Dr. Borowski's pursuit of his goal has been dogged by controversy and delay.

The museum was supposed to have been built and run in partnership with Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University. But Dr. Borowski and his wife say the partnership failed when Steven Muller, then president of Hopkins, backed out of a pledge to raise $7 million.

Now that it is built, other scholars are attacking the whole idea of amassing such a collection outside the controls of formal archaeological digs. Buying antiquities encourages their theft from archaeological sites, say these scholars, and greatly destroys their scientific worth.

The 79-year-old art dealer dismisses the criticism: "What we have here now is something for all of the world. This is something that can be a bridge among creeds, something open to institutions and people from all of the world."

His Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem is built on a high hill next to the Israel Museum, on land donated by the city. It will display about 500 of the 3,000 pieces in Dr. Borowski's private collection, and the light, airy museum is certain to become a tourist draw.

Its critics acknowledge the rarity of the collection. The pieces represent periods from 6,000 B.C. to A.D. 600 and are gathered from a wide array of the countries that now occupy the ancient lands of the Bible.

He has mosaic scenes from Egypt, rare, tiny tablets with cuneiform writing from Syria, an elaborate Roman stone coffin, inscribed document seals from Iran, Phoenician ivory carvings, Lebanese pottery and bronze ornaments from Cyprus.

But all those countries have laws against removing their national antiquity treasures. Specialists say that most artifacts that come onto the art market, and then into the hands of collectors like Dr. Borowski, have been stolen from archaeological sites and smuggled out illegally.

"Objects to be traded don't just fall from the sky," said David Ussishkin, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University. "Ninety-nine percent are the direct result of illicit digging."

"It's a bad situation," agreed Gideon Foerster, professor of classical archaeology at Hebrew University. "Countries like Turkey, Syria, Italy and Greece are very unhappy about the situation. There's a lot of international pressure to stop this sort of thing."

No one is accusing Dr. Borowski of arranging thefts. Many antiquities came onto the market in the aftermath of World War II, when withdrawing armies and unscrupulous officials conspired to plunder ancient sites.

But archaeological thefts continue. Dr. Borowski, who holds doctoral degrees from several European universities, does not reveal the sources of the pieces he has collected in his career of academic study and art dealing. He has said he has agents all over the world collecting valuable artifacts.

"Where there is a buyer, there is going to be a seller," said Dr. Ussishkin. "It's very obvious this promotes illicit digging. All trade in antiquities should be stopped."

"There is no collection in the world that is collected any differently," responds Batya Borowski, the wife of Dr. Borowski and the driving force behind completion of the museum. She argues that every major museum -- including the famed British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York -- has acquired exhibits on the open market.

"You're right. It's stolen," she said. "But we didn't steal it. We didn't encourage it to be stolen. On the contrary, we have collected it from all over the world and brought it back to Jerusalem.

"Elie's not a stealer of artifacts. He has saved and preserved so much of our history and heritage by collecting these artifacts."

Ownership rights aside, archaeologists also contend that an artifact spirited away from where it was found instantly loses much of its worth.

"Everything that is taken out of its context loses nearly 100 percent of its value for science," said Moshe Kochavi, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University. "Once you don't know where it came from, you don't know what its culture is, you don't know what its date is, you don't know what its use was."

Artifacts "loose in the air" have lost their scientific worth and also are more subject to being forged, Dr. Kochavi said.

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