Ancient artifact opens door to historical controversy

Walters Art Gallery makes $250,000 offer

July 06, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Six years ago, a Miami dentist discovered a warped piece of wood buried under newspapers, cardboard boxes and trash at a Florida auction house. His winning bid: $37.50.

Since then, Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery has thrown a $250,000 offer at Barry Ragone for that piece of wood -- which in fact is an ancient door that once guarded Torah scrolls at an Egyptian synagogue.

In recent months, Ragone has fielded entreaties from another major museum.

What was once just another auction item is now sparking controversy over where it should go and how it should be displayed. Yet the door represents more than a good investment or impressive exhibit.

Ragone says the door aided his recovery from cocaine addiction by opening a path toward his Jewish spirituality.

Gary Vikan, the director of the Walters, says the door represents a bridge between medieval Christianity and Islam.

And scholars of Judaism say the door is a piece of medieval Jewish history.

"It's an important artifact of Jewish life in Cairo," said Barry Gittlen, a professor of biblical and archaeological studies at Baltimore Hebrew University. "How many of these do we have from the Middle Ages? Not many. Synagogues were burned during the Holocaust, desecrated in Arab lands. Here we have one last piece of history."

In the 1890s, workers renovated the Ben Ezra synagogue -- the center of Jewish life in Egypt and the Mediterranean region since the 9th century -- and found a trove of documents and other artifacts, locked safely away in an attic. Those sacred books and worn scrolls have revealed much about Jewish life during the Middle Ages.

During the refurbishing, other artifacts in the synagogue were stolen, lost or thrown away. One of those items was the door to the ark, which housed the Torah, a holy scroll containing the first five books of the Bible.

Makes its way to U.S.

Somehow, the small door found its way to America and the auction house in Oakland Park, Fla., that Ragone visited one Wednesday afternoon in 1993 or 1994.

Ragone said he was just beginning to recover from years of abusing cocaine. Mostly, Ragone slept, cleaned his house and attended therapy meetings. The avid antique collector rarely ventured into the world.

"The auction was my first step back into doing something," said Ragone, 58, now of Stuart, Fla.

Rummaging in the back room of the auction house a few days before bidding, Ragone found the small door.

"The carvings looked like something from India," Ragone said. "Then I saw that it was Hebrew. There was a spiritual connection."

Sensing its potential value, Ragone asked the auctioneers to protect his find, while he scoured his collection of history books, seeking information about the door and its Hebrew letters and Islamic designs. He found nothing.

On auction day, expecting to pay nearly $1,000, Ragone was surprised by his winning bid of $37.50. He wrapped the door carefully in cloth, strapped it safely in seat belts and drove it home. There, he rested it on a sofa in an unused room.

Over the next few years, Ragone began working at a video production business, kicked his cocaine habit and overlooked the door.

But with his life back in order, he started thinking about the door again. In 1996, he began visiting local bookstores and libraries to read about ancient Judaism and Islam.

Asking the experts

Soon, his family began writing letters to Jewish museums and experts around the globe. The response stunned him.

An official with the Jewish Museum in New York offered to buy the door, Ragone said.

Soon, officials from other museums were calling.

"We didn't know what we were going to do," Ragone said. "Museums are calling us, making us offers. We just were looking for information."

Over the next few months, once-excited curators of Jewish museums began expressing less interest, then stopped calling altogether.

Ragone recently learned that an official with the Jewish Museum told other museum directors that the door was stolen property of Egypt. Jewish Museum officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"This was salvaged from a trash pile," Ragone said. "Instead of celebrating the find, this discovery, there's been a pettiness on the part of the Jewish museum world."

Ragone had the door carbon-dated. Experts said it was made in the 11th century. Its inscriptions read: "Open for me the gates of righteousness." "This is the gate of the Lord." "May the Lord bless you and guard you."

Offer from Walters

In 1997, a professor contacted Vikan, the Walters director, and told him about the door. Vikan was instantly intrigued and knew where to display the piece -- between medieval Christian and Islamic doors in a Walters' exhibit.

"It would be the bridge," Vikan said, "the third great religion of the Mediterranean world. I'd love to have it." Last year, Vikan offered Ragone $125,000 and another $125,000 from a local donor, a deal he said yesterday is still on the table.

Ragone politely declined, he said, because he wants the door to be displayed in a religious atmosphere.

Another major museum has approached him recently and inspected the door, Ragone said.

"We have an obligation to the door," Ragone said. "It survived 1,000 years. We're just a conduit. Everything about the door has been a journey, and we don't know how it will end up. We don't have the answers."

Pub Date: 7/06/99

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